Monday, November 19, 2007

The Sad Pursuit of Equality

Some of my friends, with whom I have strong political and economic disagreements, have sent me two papers that make points that they regard as important. They fit together as complementary parts of the same argument. However, instead of feeling impressed by them, I find them both unbearably sad. And I doubt that my friends will understand why – though I’ll try to explain here.

The first paper is a luncheon address by the economist to the American Meteorological Society on November 13, 2007. Daly asks, then offers his answer, to the following question:

“What is it that is causing us to systematically emit ever more CO2 into the atmosphere? It is the same thing that causes us to emit more and more of all kind of wastes into the biosphere, namely our irrational commitment to exponential growth...”

I don’t think so. Yes, the economy keeps growing and we keep producing and consuming more than we need, but not because we are irrationally committed to exponential growth. Yes, we consume more stuff than we need – but not because we’re “committed” to doing so. There’s just something screwy in our motivational make-up, prompting us to keep wanting more and more commodities. It’s not a commitment. It’s a kind of wasteful mentality that everyone recognizes as perverse – one that we can overcome if we put our minds to it. It’s an unexamined assumption that just does us no good.

But, caught up in his train of thought, Daly goes on and poses yet another odd question, which he then answers in a demoralizing way.

“Instead we ask a wrong-headed, growth-bound question, specifically: ‘By how much will we have to increase energy efficiency or carbon efficiency, in order to maintain customary growth rates in GDP?’ Suppose we get an answer, say we need to double efficiency in ten years and we actually do it. So what? We will then just do more of all the things that have become more efficient and therefore cheaper and will then emit more wastes, including greenhouse gases — the famous rebound or Jevons effect...”

Well, I never heard anyone ask the question that Daly attributes to us all. No one sets out to consume more and more just to keep up the customary . Yet I will grant this: people often do increase their consumption, not purposively, but because they keep wanting more stuff. That trend – the unceasing desire for more material possessions – is a moral flaw that everyone recognizes as such, even as we admit that it is a flaw that we individually possess and should overcome.

Still, Daly projects a whopper of a generalization: that whenever increases, so that we can produce the same consumer goods with half as many natural resources, then our automatic response is to consume twice as many of the same goods as before.

If that were true, it would be a terrible moral indictment of the human race. And indeed, there is a little truth to it. But fortunately, the main trends in the economy consist of this: When we get sufficient material goods to meet our needs, instead of continuing to seek more of the same products, we shift our interests and priorities in a different direction, producing and consuming more intangible goods and services.

Indeed, among all my close friends and acquaintances, hardly anyone earns her living producing material objects anymore. I do know a carpenter and an artistic potter, but most of my friends perform services such as advising others about how to invest their money or how to perform Pilates exercises correctly. Some of them practice psychotherapy or direct plays or design web pages or teach philosophy. Hardly anyone produces tangible items, though we all have good incomes and high standards of living. So economic growth above a certain level depletes fewer and fewer – thank God. We live in an information economy, not a manufacturing or agricultural one.

Still, Daly is correct in seeing considerable greed for physical possessions. People often seem to keep acquiring things that they don’t need, and in doing so they use up natural resources and throw ecological systems into disarray. He is right to object, but his solution is draconian, to say the least: He insists that we should stop economic growth. This solution is just as silly as the thoughtless acquisitiveness that it would presumably replace.

If people acquire more stuff than they need, what they should do is start asking themselves: What, if anything, do I really need? And do I already have enough?

Why do people acquire more stuff than is good for them? Yes, we need clothing and shoes — but 100 garments and 50 pairs of shoes? Yes, we need a house to keep us warm and dry – but nobody needs two houses. When we keep buying more stuff than we need it’s because we aren’t thinking in terms of “need” or “sufficiency,” but are comparing ourselves to someone else. We want to have as much as he has, or preferably more. This, the , dooms us to judge our own well-being not in terms of how well our are met but in terms of our affluence in comparison to someone else. Equality is precisely the wrong standard because it prompts people to ask for more, even when they don’t need it.

Let’s take Daly’s issue seriously; indeed, we must reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and to do so we must become more efficient in producing . Fortunately, I have as much physical stuff as I need or want — but all around the world there are billions of poor people whose needs are unmet. Supplying them with the commodities and services will keep the economy growing – not as an end in itself, but I am delighted to support that growth. We can have — thank God — without ruining the planet, so long as we fulfill individual human needs rather than the endless material cravings arising from the pursuit of equality as a criterion of fairness.

Now I want to turn to the other disturbing paper my friend sent today: an article by of the University of Washington School of Medicine. I were a physician, I would be utterly demoralized by this paper. I don’t know how doctors can carry on if they believe what he is saying.

Bezruchka’s message is this: The main factor determining the illness of any human population is the degree of income inequality.

“Why would income equity — the width of the gap between the very rich and the very poor — have such a profound effect on the health of the population? And why does this influence on health affect the wealthiest countries as well as the poorest? Several reasons have been advanced, including stress ... ”

Notice that Bezruchka does NOT say that the quality of health care determines the health of the population. No, indeed. It’s that counts, not the excellence or inadequacy of the medical care. He writes:

“Most people probably consider health care services in developed countries such as Japan and the United States important in prolonging life and improving the population’s life expectancy. But there are few, if any, studies demonstrating the impact of medical services on the health of populations, a situation lamented in the Oxford Textbook of Public Health. Some maintain that acute health care services can be thought of as the ambulance waiting at the bottom of the cliff to retrieve the victims cast off by the violent aftermath of societal structure. Indeed, some studies, particularly from the United States, suggest that acute health care can itself inflict significant harm...”

Bezruchka notes that Japan has the highest life expectancy today of any nation, and he attributes this, not to the excellence of its medical care or social services, but to the considerable social equality in the society.

“For example, even though Japanese society is reputed to be very stressful, with crowded cities, tiny apartments, long commutes and workers who push people into subway cars in order to shut the doors, everyone shares that stress...”

In other words, you’re better off experiencing considerable misery than being comfortable — if everyone else is miserable along with you. Neither medical care nor the fulfillment of your other objective needs count for much, for you do not judge your own well-being by consulting the state of your body or your ability to achieve the projects in life that you have set for yourself. What counts is only your well-being in comparison to that of others around you. If you are all equally miserable, you will probably live a long life. If you are worse off – or perhaps even markedly better off – than the others, you have grounds for complaint.

This external system of appraising one’s own well-being is pernicious and debilitating. What one person needs may be an impediment to another person. We have to keep in touch with our own bodies and our own life plans to know how well we are doing.

The worst example I have ever hard of this comparative self-appraisal comes from Hollywood. In an astounding study of all the filmmakers and actors who were nominated for Academy Awards, it was established that winning is everything! The people who were nominated but did not actually win, lived fully five years shorter lives than those who won Oscars! By every conceivable criterion, these people were successful in their careers – but not as successful as those who actually won. And they consumed themselves with envy and low self-esteem, shortening their own lives five years by invidious comparisons. Five years!

How can a physician serve his profession with dedication, believing that the quality of medical care is irrelevant – that what counts is that his patients receive equal (even if inferior) treatment and access to social benefits?

Listen, friends. We face many challenges right now, as we try to save this planet. But one fundamental challenge is a moral one. We have to stop this crazy pursuit of equality as if it were a goal. It’s not a goal. The goal is to allow individuals’ needs to be fulfilled — which means that they have to know what is a real need and what is a false, vainglorious pursuit.

Everyone must ask: Do I have enough? If so, I want no more. But if my brother in Burma or Bolivia or Burundi does not have his needs met, then part of my challenge is to help him get enough. That’s very different from the pursuit of equality.



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