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America: The Best Country in the World at Being Last -- How Can We Change That?

The data is piling up to confirm that we’re Number One, but in exactly the way we don’t want to be—at the bottom. Where did we go wrong and what can we do about it?

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The prioritization of economic growth is among the roots of our problems. Today’s reigning policy orientation holds that the path to greater well-being is to grow and expand the economy. Productivity, profits, the stock market, and consumption must all go up. This growth imperative trumps all else. Growth is measured by tallying GDP at the national level, and sales and profits at the company level. The pursuit of GDP and profit can be said to be the overwhelming priorities of national economic and political life.

Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing—underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those in affluent societies, now creating more problems than it is solving.  The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy undermines families and communities; it is leading us to environmental calamity; it fuels a ruthless international search for energy and other resources; it fails at generating the needed jobs; and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting our deepest human needs.

Americans are substituting growth and consumption for dealing with the real issues—for doing the things that would make us, and the country, better off. Psychologists have pointed out, for example, that while economic output per person in the United States has risen sharply in recent decades, there has been no increase in life satisfaction, and levels of distrust and depression have increased substantially. We have entered the realm of what ecological economist Herman Daly calls “uneconomic growth.” Environmentally, we see a world in which growth has brought us to a situation where more of the same will quite literally ruin the planet. Politically, the growth imperative is a big part of how we the people are controlled: the necessity for growth gives the real power to those who have the finance and technology to deliver it.

IT IS UP TO US AS CITIZENS to inject values of justice, fairness, and sustainability into this system, and government is the primary vehicle we have for accomplishing this. Typically, we attempt to do so by working within the system to promote needed reforms. We work the media and other channels to raise public awareness of our issue, and try to shift public understanding and discourse in our favor. We lobby Congress, the current administration, and government agencies with well-crafted and sensible proposals. When necessary, we go to court. With modest resources, we devote what we can to the electoral process and to candidates for public office. And we hope somehow that lightning will strike and events will move in our favor.

But it is now abundantly clear that these reformist approaches are not succeeding. The titanic forces unleashed by the American brand of capitalism are too powerful. The ceaseless drive for profits, growth, and power and other system imperatives keep the problem spigot fully open. Reform rarely deals with the root causes—the underlying drivers. The forces that gave rise to these problems in the first place continue to war against progress. And our enfeebled political life, more and more in the hands of powerful corporations and individuals of great wealth, is no match for these forces.

Pursuing reform within the system can help, but what is now desperately needed is transformative change in the system itself. To deal successfully with all the challenges America now faces, we must therefore complement reform with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change to create a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet.

At the core of this new operating system must be a sustaining economy based on new economic thinking and driven forward by a new politics. The purpose and goal of a sustaining economy is to provide broadly shared prosperity that meets human needs while preserving the earth’s ecological integrity and resilience—in short, a flourishing people and a flourishing nature. That is the paradigm shift we must now seek.