Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why I'm not a big fan of economic growth

People sometimes tease me for not thinking the economy is important. It's not that I think it's unimportant. But I do think we place too much emphasis on it. And I think often decisions are made as if economic growth was the most important aim, when there are other things that are far more important. We've prioritised the economy over well-being, when it should be the other way around. 

Let's take two policy decisions by the Labor Government recently.

The first is the decision to take all single parents off Parenting Payment when their youngest child turns eight and place them on Newstart instead. Newstart is not enough to live on - so it forces these parents into any work they can find - and their choices are limited because of their child-caring responsibilities. 

From an economic perspective, this makes sense. On one hand, you can hand out money to parents to stay at home. On the other hand, you force people into working so they're not only contributing to the economy with their labour, but also through paying for child are and more consumer spending.

However, is the economy really the most important thing here? Shouldn't the most important thing be the health and well-being of our children. I was lucky enough to be able to work from home until just recently, when my youngest was 11. And while we may not have had much money, what we did have was way more precious - time together. I'm not saying all parents should stay at home until their children finish primary school. But I do believe those that want to should be encouraged. No, they don't contribute as much to the economy, but they contribute an awful lot to the well-being of their children and often the wider community. 

The next area is refugees. I received something in my mailbox the other day about how much illegal boats are costing us. We've reduced real people who are hurting and suffering to a dollar figure. If the economy is the most important thing, then maybe this makes sense. But it's a sad world we live in, if that's the thing that matters most.

Compassion is never cheap. In dollar terms, what we spend when we're compassionate will often exceed what we receive. But in well-being terms, what we receive is priceless. Being compassionate does have benefits - not only to those who are helped, but to those who are helping. 

And if we remove the economic focus, let's look at what refugees bring to Australia. Not only do they bring the opportunity for us to show compassion, they bring their lives, their culture and their stories. They bring the opportunity to enrich the lives of all those who come into contact with them. Surely that's worth something!

The other problem I have with economic growth is that it can suggest that it is only economic transactions that are important. Health, love, enjoyment, nature - all are seen in dollar terms. Instead of weddings being seen as a chance to celebrate love and begin a life together, they're huge events that require lots of consumer spending. Weight management, match-making and Eco-tourism are huge industries. A hug, a giggle, a walk in our local neighbourhood don't contribute to economic growth. But if someone can find a way to make money out of them, they will. 

And does consumer spending really equal happiness? How much of what we buy is actually making our lives better? And often our buying is a reflection of things that are wrong, not how happy we are. Yesterday I spent money on a pillow for my sore neck and medication. Yes, they contributed to my well-being - but I'd say the conversation I had with my sons in the evening probably had more to say about my general well-being that my consumer spending did.

The economy is important. We need money to provide the basic services that people need. And there's nothing wrong with wanting Australians to have good lifestyles beyond those basic services. But growing the economy shouldn't be the ultimate goal. Improving the well-being of people should. The economy is just a tool to help us do that. When people's well-being suffers because it's not good for the economy, then something is wrong.

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