The Missing Sector

For more than two hundred years, mainstream thinking has regarded the market as the primary source of material “progress.” And indeed, to a large extent that’s been true. But yesterday is not forever. Today the market is approaching a point of diminishing returns – systemic diminishing returns. It is yielding less well-being per unit of output by practically any measure, and more problems instead: obesity instead of good health, congestion instead of mobility , time deficits instead of leisure, depression and stress instead of a sense of well-being, social fracture rather than cohesion, environmental degradation rather than improvement.

In place of wealth, the economic machinery increasingly turns out what John Ruskin, the 19th Century essayist on art and economics, called “illth,” which is accumulation that fosters ill results rather than towards weal, or well-being.This is not just a matter of distribution, which is the traditional concern of the Left. Inequitable distribution is a major problem, to be sure, and becoming more so. But to redistribute illth is not necessarily to do anyone a great favor.


Why It Matters Who Owns Local Businesses

Does it matter who owns our local businesses? According to the economics texts the answer is “No.” The only question is “consumer value” which is to say, how much we get for our money. We are one-dimensional creatures; our psyches are essentially those of wall-eyed bass with better math skills.

So ownership is not relevant. Business is essentially none of our business. So long as Wal-Mart offers the cheapest prices, we should welcome it to town. Ditto Barnes and Noble, Starbucks, and Dominos Pizza. They provide the most stuff for the least price (Starbucks excluded there) so what’s our beef?


The Health Care Crisis Few of Us Recognize

A few weeks ago, researchers reported that drug use had increased “dramatically” among children in the U.S. These researchers weren’t talking about illicit drugs, but rather prescription medications for such conditions as obesity, asthma, depression and restlessness in school.

Another study found that American children are showing up in doctors’ offices with arteries that look like those of 45 year olds.



West Marin’s Jonathan Rowe strongly believes that the economists, the Federal Reserve, Congress, the White House—all who have anything to do with measuring and reporting the health of the economy—have it all wrong.

Rowe—co-founder of West Marin Commons, a community organizing group—is not an economist. But he spent many years as a staffer on Capitol Hill listening to scores of economists expound and pronounce at Senate committee meetings—and came away not very impressed.


Our Phony Economy

Suppose that the head of a federal agency came before this committee and reported with pride that agency employees had burned 10 percent more calories at work last year than they did the year before. Not only that–they had spent 10 percent more money too. I have a feeling you would want to know more. What were these employees doing when they burned those calories? What did they spend that money on? Most important, what were the results? Expenditure is a means, not an end, and to assess the health of an agency, or system, you need to know what it has accomplished, not just how much motion it has generated and money it has spent. The point seems obvious, yet Congress ignores it every day when it talks about “the economy.” The administration and the media do it, too. Every time you say that “the economy” is up, or that you want to “stimulate” it, you are urging more expenditure and motion without regard to what that expenditure is and what it might accomplish, and without regard to what it might crowd out or displace in the process.


The Strange “Economics” of Breast Milk
December 1, 2006
By Jonathan Rowe

You probably heard about the woman who was kicked off a Delta flight recently for breast feeding her daughter.  She was in a window seat, next to her husband.  She was being discreet; nothing was showing. A flight attendant asked her to cover up with a blanket anyway.  The woman declined; and so off the plane they went.

The episode prompted nurse-ins at airports throughout the U.S.  The airline apologized; and I’m willing to believe that the flight attendant thought she was just doing her job. Still, there’s an issue here that goes beyond the lingering residues of prudery – namely, the pervasive bias in favor of commodities, and against anything people can do for themselves for free.  Has anyone ever been thrown off a plane for giving infant formula to a baby, which is inferior to breast milk?  I doubt it.


Disease-Led Recovery

If you doubt that economics has become a hermetic form of math that is disconnected from the world it purports to explain, then I suggest you read the cover story in the September 25th Business Week.  It’s called “What’s Really Propping Up The Economy?” and the answer is what is euphemistically called “health-care.”  Since 2001, the story says, the nation’s medical system has accounted for just about every new job in the U.S.  That’s 1.7 million new jobs for the medical system; and for the rest of the economy – zero.


What Greenspan Can’t See

The President’s response to his administration’s ineptitude regarding Katrina has been to distance himself from it.  He’s calling for an “investigation,” as though someone other than himself was in charge. His helpers meanwhile are mounting an attack on his critics and shifting the blame to local officials – red letter moves from the Karl Rove playbook.

I’m not sure it will fly.  The story has gone pretty far beyond the White House spin.  When the President appeared in staged photo-ops with his arms around children of color, it just reminded people of how little he has done. Then again, the Washington media is both obedient and gullible.  Plus, the President’s critics haven’t done a great job of framing the issue either.


Is Happiness a Commons?

Gunnar Myrdal, the late Swedish economist, once noted the strange tendency of his profession to barricade itself against human reality. In true sciences, such as biochemistry and physics, hypotheses are tested and disproven all the time. In the pseudo-science of economics, by contrast, “all doctrines persist.”

None persists more stubbornly than the belief that an increase in monetary transactions — that is, “growth” — means a corresponding increase in human well-being. This belief is enshrined in the conventional measure of progress, the Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. The more money we spend the better we are doing, the cult of GDP proclaims, regardless what we spend that money on and the effects. People have been pointing out the absurdity of this belief for decades.