If the Economy Tanks When Democracy Advances, We Have a Serious Problem

Tahrir Square photoMaged Helal photography/CC BY 2.0

"The economy seems to be recovering, despite blips caused by the Arab Spring and the Fukushima Earthquake."

I almost missed the disturbing absurdity of this statement as I was listening to the radio the other day. Did I really just hear that the march of democracy is a threat to our economy, comparable to that of a horrific natural disaster? Sure, a giant earthquake that destroys communities, claims countless lives and disrupts supply chains can (and should) be seen as a major economic disruption. But a popular uprising against a murderous and brutal regime?

If the economy is supposed to be a measure of our well-being and development, we have a serious problem.

The Struggles of the Oil Industry As An Economic Woe?
And it's a problem that is not just limited to social development or human rights. A few days before the radio broadcast above, I heard another report on NPR—hardly the bastion of neoliberal economic thinking—on the struggles of the US oil industry being caused (gasp!) by consumers consuming less oil. The report didn't explicitly say that this was a bad thing, but it also did not take that leap—so obvious to many—that a decline in oil consumption by one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters on Earth is a prerequisite for our continued prosperity, and possibly our survival.

oil-refineryljmacphee/CC BY 2.0

From the true price of gasoline to the astounding economic damage caused by coal, we should be jumping up and down every time we hear these industries are in trouble, not issuing somber analyses of how they can adapt. Whether it's the extra money in ordinary consumers' pockets, the lower emissions or the reduced likelihood of oil spills and coal mine disasters, the benefits are in plain sight. Sure, some communities that have relied on these industries will need (and deserve) help in moving into a new economic era, but we can't let the struggles of transition become reasons for stagnation.

The Real Economy is Measured in Health and Happiness
I'm in danger of sounding like a broken record here. It's a point I've made before on my piece on why masturbation is an economic act (incidentally, really not as rude as it sounds), but if our GDP is boosted by social and environmental negatives, and damaged by positive steps forward, then it is time to rethink the role of GDP in our collective decision making. It's time to reconnect with the real economy—namely the actions we take, and the interactions we participate in, every day to improve our lot and the lot of those around us—whether it involves the exchange of currency or not.

Economic activity is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. We do not celebrate every time heroin sales rise, or human traffickers have a bumper year. I am not, of course, suggesting that there is a moral equivalency between either category and those who work in the fossil fuel industry. But I am suggesting we have to be a little more selective about which economic activity we want to encourage, and which we could rather do without. And that means developing a more nuanced understanding of our economy and how it contributes to our health and happiness.

triodos bank ad photoTriodos Bank/Video screen capture

New Models Create a Deeper Understanding
Luckily that understanding is already forming. From progressive banks demanding more happiness and less greed on the Times Square Nasdaq Board, through the steady march of Benefit Corporations or B Corps, to some serious, high-level interest in no growth economics, ideas that were once considered pie-in-the-sky heresy are now being considered as very real remedies to the failures of the status quo.

And not before time. Hopefully our economic reporting will catch up.

Tags: Activism | Economics | Egypt | Russia


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