Arthur C. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and a
former college professor. His latest book is The Road to Freedom: How to
Win the Fight for Free Enterprise (Basic Books, May 2012).
JUNE DEBATE RESULTS:
Do the benefits of “super PACs”
outweigh the criticisms?
THERE IS PERHAPS no more famous statement of the American ideal
than the Declaration of Independence’s claim that we possess the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That’s not a guarantee of happiness—just an assertion that it is our right to define it as we see
fit, and pursue it.
Of course, money doesn’t buy happiness. The reason economic growth
matters, though, is because it gives us a shot at the pursuit.
Without economic growth, we cannot have an upwardly mobile opportunity society. Instead,
we get an envy society, where people fight over a fixed amount of resources. Parents are unable
to envision their children doing better than they did—except by stealing from their neighbors
(or worse). This is the situation in many countries around the world, and certainly one we would
like to avoid here at home.
Today, we face policy choices that make us ask: Will we accept stagnant growth and an envy
society, or will we continue to choose growth and opportunity?
But economic growth isn’t just about rising living standards. It’s about giving people a chance
to earn their success.
To be truly happy, people also have to be able to succeed on the basis of their hard work and
good ideas. That means true fairness based on rewarding merit, not just redistributing income.
University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman’s pioneering work shows what happens
when people believe success and reward are disconnected; he calls it “learned helplessness.” With
this helplessness comes unhappiness, as people give up and become passive.
In short, then, the pursuit of happiness requires opportunity, and opportunity requires economic growth. In an economically stagnant society, people learn helplessness and can’t earn their
success. Nobody believes that money buys love or happiness or contentment. And in fact, people
who argue that we should ignore growth in favor of simply redistributing wealth are preaching
Economic growth provides a canvas where people can realize their hopes and desires for
themselves and their children. America’s founders understood this. And so should we. C
Percentage reflects votes
received by June 18, 2012.
MAY DEBATE RESULTS:
Should juries for high-profile
criminal trials be anonymous?
YES: 89% NO: 11%
Percentage reflects votes received by
May 31, 2012. Results may reflect
Debate being picked up by blogs.
from an expert in the field:
Jeffrey Sachs is the director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University,
and author of The Price of Civilization (Random House, 2011).
AMERICA IS ONE of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet growing
numbers of Americans are unhappy, unhealthy and increasingly pessimistic. Today happiness seems out of reach to tens of millions of Americans.
One reason is obvious. Wealth may be soaring, but since the top
1 percent of wealthy households have more net worth than the bottom
90 percent, and the top 0.01 percent of households (about 12,000) receive
more income than the poorest 24 million households, can we be surprised
that the mood today is pessimistic?
Yet the problems are even deeper. In America today, the quest for profits has crowded out
almost every other value. The logic of the corporation has become the logic of America, to the
point that the Supreme Court can no longer tell the difference between free speech and untrammeled corporate power.
The problem of corporate power goes beyond the threats to democracy as corporate power
dominates Washington politics and policy making. We are also at risk of losing our values, and
even our birthright to the pursuit of happiness. Gross national product may be way up over the
past 30 years, but social trust, honesty and compassion are down, as market values and the pursuit of profits have been allowed to penetrate every sphere of our lives.
The time has come to reconsider the basic sources of happiness in economic life, not just
for a better distribution of income and wealth, though we need that, and not just to protect our
democracy, but also to achieve a better distribution of values, ethics and goals.
One urgent task is to raise the skills of America’s young people. Governments at all levels
have a major role to play, to ensure that all children have access to healthcare, preschool, public
school and the chance for higher education. Rather than creating low-skilled and temporary jobs
for our kids, we should be helping our young people to stay in school until they have the skills
and training they need for fulfilling jobs.
Yet there is also the need to strengthen our personal and social ethics. With the world increasingly unstable and dangerous, the time has come to regain our balance and moderation. Yes, we
should support economic growth and development, but in a broader context: one that promotes
social trust, compassion, business honesty, the environment and ultimately our happiness. C
Opinions expressed are those of the
individuals or organizations represented and
are presented to foster discussion.
Costco and The Costco Connection take no
position on any Debate topic.