By Frank Wessling
It’s an easy bet that when the pendulum of a clock swings up one way, it will go only so far and then come down swinging the opposite way. Human affairs tend to work the same way. Our momentum takes us to an extreme that spends all the energy in that direction, setting in motion an opposing swing.
Over the past decade or so, supposedly smart, creative people designed ways to make money through densely complicated transactions involving other people’s property. Eventually, their creations rose high enough to expose a shortage of value, or energy, in them. The housing bubble burst and the pendulum of financial and economic affairs took the natural downward swing.
Now we’re in a mood to listen as other smart people talk about how too much emphasis on material growth hurts us. It has been economic gospel for a long time now that to stand still as a business is to watch the rest of the world go by. Grow or die, is the mantra. But it was a lust for growth, for more, evermore, that drove the world’s financial system to an explosion.
Why must we put so much energy in growth for the sake of things that can be bought, sold and traded? That isn’t where most of life’s real satisfaction comes from. It isn’t the source of love. It doesn’t produce happiness — momentary thrill and satisfaction, often enough, but not real growth in happiness.
The economy of money and property is an essential part of living in freedom but not the highest value. Recent popes have made this point over and over in a series of encyclicals on the social nature of humanity, but it gets lost in the excitement over a new product on the market. Besides, what do popes and bishops and priests know about the economy?
The church knows about that pendulum. It has seen empires, kings and dictators rise and fall. It has been in the middle of booms and busts, the rise and collapse of guilds, the spread of its own influence through colonialism and the bursting of the colonial bubble. The church knows that novelty, fashion and greed drive growth as much as an honest and substantive search for the good life.
Some economists now sound like they’re in tune with the church’s focus on higher values rather than a 50-inch plasma TV screen. Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, both winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, are leading an effort to convince us that we need more honest ways to measure “progress.” It’s not enough to cheer because steel production went up a point. What about the hills that were left a wasteland after getting the coal that helped produce the steel?
A degraded environment taken out of public use and enjoyment should not be ignored when balancing the books of our national life. As Stiglitz has pointed out, “What you measure affects what you do.”
We may cheer when business activity ticks upward because technology brings greater “productivity,” but we must also face the human disruption of unemployment and loss of family stability. We have become good at measuring the churning of material goods and transactions. We need closer attention to goods of the spirit. A well-performing market doesn’t translate simply into a good society.
The drive to grow, explore, expand, invent new ways and new things is part of being human. It won’t be stopped. What the Catholic tradition looks for isn’t an end to growth, but a sufficient humanizing of the energy that aims for growth. In other words, however we measure progress, the aim should be an enjoyment of basic human goods by every daughter and son of God.
We’ll know there is progress in that direction when teachers are valued higher than ballplayers.