“As with psychology and politics, economics plays an important role in our lives. But it cannot satisfy the irresistible impulse for a comprehensive worldview. “
Today Comment reprints reflections from 1998 on four trends that were converging then, and converge still today.
The New Economic “I AM . . . “
Originally published June 1998
It is generally acknowledged that everyone has a worldview or perspective by which they view life. Whether we recognize it or not, we all process our experiences and develop an outlook through a particular window which provides a framework of the world in which we live. This allows us to make sense of the discord, diversity, and complexity of our everyday existence. Christian philosophers, such as Dr. Evan Runner, taught that this impulse is part of our created reality, and is as natural as the need for food and love.
For many, belief in a Supreme Being who created and sustains this universe provides the window through which they try to understand the world around them and to develop a response to the challenges it raises. Others have discarded or refused to consider this belief. Being unshackled from what they think is the yoke of religion, they proceed nevertheless to cultivate a worldview that all too often is simply an overemphasis of one aspect of reality. This is then extrapolated and developed into an elaborate thought system that attempts to explain the whole of life.
Take the not-so-fanciful chiropractor who was so enthused about the benefits of proper back care that he asserted world peace could be brought about if only everyone had a spinal adjustment once a week. This is an outrageous example of our tendency—once we remove the anchor of faith that extends beyond the realm of humanity—to absolutize one aspect of our existence.
Another example is our fascination with psychology. Freud set us on the journey of much introspection and navel gazing. While he did have some insight into how the mind functions, he introduced us to the notion that meaning and purpose in life lies within and can be unearthed through extensive time on the psychoanalyst’s couch, rather than through some outside revelation.
For years, we were encouraged to see a therapist to get our heads screwed on straight, get in touch with our inner child. Only recently are people beginning to see through the shallowness of endless, myopic self-focus. The popularity of radio-talk show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger‘s common sense advice attests to the declining popularity of “psychologizing” everything we say or do. Refusing to employ psychobabble, she confirms that the path to personal happiness doesn’t require $3,000 of therapy.
Another aspect of life that has been overemphasized is politics. Many people have poured much energy into getting governments directly involved in an ever-expanding array of initiatives, convinced that the state has the ability to solve a wide variety of our problems. Hence these people politicize issues such as day care, health care, and job creation, lobbying governments to provide a solution.
But the bloom has gone from the political rose, given that governments, too, have not proven to be as effective as promised. The impetus for this change no doubt has been greatly aided by unsustainable yearly public deficits. The supporters of state intervention have drowned in a sea of debt. Governments simply cannot afford to take care of our every need. Thus, although some continue to lobby for this or that program or initiative, fewer people today are seeking political solutions to problems that are not properly within the sphere of the state.
Nonetheless, given the internal drive for a comprehensive worldview, society continues to cast about. Unfortunately, the latest popular ideas substitute only one small aspect of life, distorted and overemphasized, to satisfy a deep religious need. Two recent trends receiving attention are a new form of non-Christian spirituality and an often cynical (re)focus on securing our own individual place under the economic sun.
Previous Comment articles have discussed the impact of the first trend in the workplace. A walk through the business section of your local bookstore illustrates that spirituality is still in vogue. In fact, there are now conferences attended by employees of Fortune 500 companies that focus solely on spirituality in the workplace. People are realizing that this area of their daily lives requires a more comprehensive perspective. The “spirituality” pursued is most often only a handle for doing things in a kinder, gentler way. It is not true spirituality. This trend will likely begin to fade as people become disillusioned with this counterfeit religiosity.
The second trend, however, will likely have more staying power, because it is a remake of two enduring themes, namely, self and wealth. Whereas before the key to happiness and success was once knowing the right psychoanalyst or pushing through the correct government program, now having our personal financial portfolio in place is deemed to be the key to satisfying our deeper religious longings.
The elevation of economics as the window to personal meaning and fulfilment may sound like nothing new. But just as the social upheaval of the 1960s got its strength from the confluence of a number of social events—large numbers of young people growing up together, the introduction of new technology (television and mass-marketed pop music), unprecedented wealth (thousands of students could afford to go to college and protest the “system” that allowed them to exist without working), an unpopular war (it’s always helpful to have a common enemy), and an unbridled confidence in mankind’s ability to conquer through science (“we will send a man to the moon before the end of this decade”)—so too today the convergence of a number of trends, some old, some new, suggest that the emergence of economics as the measure of life will have a broad and long-lasting impact on society.
Four converging trends
First, the secularization of life continues largely unabated. Increasingly, our public discourse is uncomfortable with religious principles, particularly Judeo-Christian ones, contributing to policy formulation. Religious claims to truth assault the generally held belief that there is no objective truth. Denying access to these claims doesn’t, however, satisfy the need to reference the tougher questions into a larger context. Since appeals to a higher principle cannot be made, the resulting vacuum is filled with less altruistic motivations.
Consider a recent article in the Globe and Mail by Susan Bourette describing the new 20- to 30-year old investors in the stock market. She quotes a young man who perhaps best represents the general view of many: “I don’t want to change the world. . . . I just want to enjoy it.” She goes on to quote sociology professor Anton Allahar who describes the new young investor as part of the “feel-good generation. They are hedonistic, individualistic and materialistic. They have no concern for civic duty. . . . We live in a dog-eat-dog society. It’s not really their fault. These are simply the values that we have instilled in them.”
Without an all-encompassing worldview that places economics in its rightful place as one of many important facets of our lives, the absolutization of the “dismal” science results in truly dismal practices. A broader framework for justice, fairness, responsibility, and civility is required to prevent economics from becoming the definitive context of reality.
Second, we are seeing continued economic disparity in our society. Most analysts agree that the middle class is shrinking. The poor appear to be getting poorer, while the upper class continues to do well.
As we move toward a knowledge-based society, low-skill, good-paying jobs are becoming more scarce. For decades, unskilled people could work in unionized factories, get health care insurance, have job security, earn a good wage, and retire with the same company on a good pension. Clearly, the percentage of those jobs is decreasing. Yes, there are good-paying jobs out there, but invariably they require a higher level of training, skills, and education.
Unlike the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, there is not equal access to jobs. More and more people are finding it harder to find full-time good paying work in the new emerging job market. Economics itself, through technique or analysis, can’t deal with this reality. Increased focus on the economic aspect of life as the path to self-fulfillment and meaning, coupled with more information through disclosure laws about what others are earning, has the potential to create unrest and resentment.
Third, we are in a steadily shrinking world. Years ago, unrest in Indonesia would have been world news and nothing more. Now the stubbornness of Asian dictators affects not only the performance of other countries’ economies, it also reduces the value of my RRSPs.
Many have written about how the free flow of capital has blurred international boundaries. While there is reason to slow or control this movement, particularly as it pertains to stock market speculation, such investment is needed to refurbish obsolete equipment or build new plants and thus secure jobs. This investment-job relationship will become increasingly pervasive and will likely override claims to maintain national “sovereignty” over our economic lives. (If such control is even possible while still maintaining all the attributes of a free and democratic society.)
Fourth, our values will continue to be shaped by the predominant notion that is best captured by the successful Molson Canadian ads which summarize the popular dogma in two words: “I AM . . .” This attitude of “I am whatever I make of myself” carries over into the economic realm. And if we can’t make it ourselves, we ask the government to give us our due.
Even for those who claim to support a more caring society, the results of a pervasive attitude of getting my fair share hardly forms the basis for a civil or just society.
The convergence of these four trends suggest that renewed analysis on the deeper implications of the role of economics in our lives needs to take place. Our challenge is to move the discussion of emerging economic dynamics into a larger context, one that encompasses all of life.
As with psychology and politics, economics plays an important role in our lives. But it cannot satisfy the irresistible impulse for a comprehensive worldview. Each sphere of life must take its place in relation to others. By employing the scales of the Christian faith, a proper balance can be achieved.