Growth Isn’t Good Enough
President Obama’s economic pragmatism is said to be a commitment to “whatever works.” This is in one way a refreshing change from the approach of his predecessor, who always seemed sure that he already knew what worked (for problems at home, lower taxes for the rich; for problems abroad, invasion).
No one would deny that a president ought to be interested in empirical evidence and ready to adjust to it. But economic pragmatism, like the phrase “whatever works,” is vacuous until we have some sense what it means for an economy to work. Was the economy working at the height of the bubble? Can any economy be said to work when its success at one moment entails its failure the next? The record profits for investment firms three years ago were a reward for recklessness. Now the wreck. The bust followed the boom not as sorrow follows happiness — unpredictably, unevenly — but as a hangover follows a bender. Enjoy the one and you must suffer the other.
This is not the only kind of economy that is possible. One can imagine an economy whose growth is valued and controlled according to some set of goods besides growth itself. For not all growth is good. Both plants and cancer grow. The good growth of the one is better than the bad growth of the other not because it is faster but because it serves life. If economic growth is to serve the life of the country, then it must be subordinate to economic goods that are always good, principally justice. It is a measure of our confusion, and a source of our desperation, that the word “justice” now seems out of place in discussions about economic policy. Justice means that people get what they deserve, where what they deserve is understood to mean something other than whatever they happen to get. In a just economy, people who work diligently do not live in constant fear of having their jobs outsourced, and they are adequately compensated for their labors.
There are other economic goods that are even harder than justice to count, and impossible to enter on a corporate balance sheet. Among these is the satisfaction proper to good work, to a worthwhile job well done (where “worthwhile” is understood to mean something more than whatever someone will pay you for). This is what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre means when he writes about the “internal goods” of an activity. There is also the satisfaction of social usefulness, of providing others in one’s community with what they need, as opposed to what they can be convinced by an advertiser to buy. Fewer and fewer people in the United States have jobs that provide them with these kinds of satisfaction. Many “jobs of the twenty-first century” are no better in this regard than the jobs that are now being lost in shopping malls or car dealerships.
The word “work” always suggested difficulty, but now it usually suggests tedium as well. Unless we are lucky enough to find ourselves in the “creative class” or in one of those small pockets of the American economy where necessary things are still made — or unless we are doctors, nurses, or teachers — we usually do what we do because of how well it pays, or because no one will pay us to do anything else. Social satisfaction is for the weekend, justice for the afterlife.