Once we see that we are the economy, we realize we can change it — and when we change it, we change the world.
I recently moved back to the United States after over a decade abroad. It’s been an interesting re-acclimation which I believe some people call ‘reverse culture shock’. There is so much about this country, my home, that is comfortable and familiar. A shared language, sense of humor, and customs allow me to flow through this society with ease. However, the thing that has stood out more than anything is that nearly everyone I meet seems to be struggling with some form of anxiety or depression. What’s even more jarring is that they all seem to feel like it’s their fault — telling themselves they just need to work harder, meditate, or exercise more to emerge from this crushing darkness. But if everyone is feeling this way, then clearly there must be something bigger at play.
If living and working across Africa, Asia, and Europe has shown me anything, it is that it doesn’t have to be this hard. There is something about the US system that is undermining collective wellbeing and making us miserable. When you’re living abroad you realize that the most powerful US export is our culture and economic model, one that is presented as innovative, selfish, ambitious, and materialistic.
I can now see the consequences of a culture that emphasizes individual exceptionalism in a system where it’s a struggle to just get by. I feel the pain of millions who are struggling to meet their basic needs in the supposedly richest country in the world. Everything you actually need: food, housing, medical care, for example, is incredibly expensive here while the things we don’t need, like a river float, can be found in every shape and size for less than 20 bucks (and a four-part payment plan!). Now don’t get me wrong, I love a unicorn float as much as the next girl — but I’d also love some affordable housing. The US economic system is broken and it’s tearing us apart, as we fragment and divide across ideological and identify lines. We sit in a moment of profound transformation as a society and as a culture, as the veils are being removed and the deep hypocrisy and injustice of the American Dream reveals itself.
I’m still a bit disoriented, as the US we now see on the news and Netflix is not the one I know. I am from a small rural town in Vermont. A town so small that we do not have police or a proper government. Instead, we have a town meeting where every spring people gather for a couple days to discuss the town’s budget and priorities. This was my introduction to politics and to economics. Living in a community of carpenters, farmers, teachers, and caregivers, I was raised in a culture that emphasized generosity, reciprocity, and stewardship.
I left at 15, driven by ambition to explore the world and to experience more than I thought this small town could offer. I saw the world as this complex Venn diagram with various interconnected social, political, environmental, and spiritual issues and developed a belief that somewhere towards the center sat the economy — and if we could change this system, it would ripple out and improve all other areas of life.
And so with starry eyes, I went to college and took my first economics class and was immediately annoyed and confused. I wanted to understand how the economy worked, but all I encountered was a bunch of graphs, jargon, and old white men talking about stock market fluctuations and GDP growth rates as if they mattered more than life itself.
Thus began my now decades-long love-hate relationship with economics. I believe that one of the greatest tricks played on humanity has been to present the economy as something boring and abstract, that happens out-there, beyond our control. We’re simultaneously told that the economy matters more than Covid, climate change or our mental health and that it’s just too complicated for us to understand.
But I’ve got a little secret for you. We are the economy and we’ve got the power to change it.
The economy is just a word we use to describe the way we produce and provide for one another. It’s a system that harnesses our creativity and facilitates exchange between people and planet to improve our quality of life.
Somewhere along the way we developed a strange assumption that the economy is driven by the worst parts of us — that when it comes to producing and providing for one another, we’re all inherently rational, individualistic, selfish assholes, and somehow that’s a good thing.
As a result, we designed policies and built institutions to encourage and reward this kind of behavior. Studies show that CEOs are 12 times more likely to exhibit psychopathic traits than the general population: as they are the perfect ‘economic man’, devoid of compassion, empathy, and consideration for the wellbeing of others. We have come to glorify psychopathic behavior because we have built a narrative that taking as much as we can for ourselves will somehow leave everyone better off.
The issue, of course, is that it doesn’t seem to be working out that way, with 10 billionaires doubling their wealth since the pandemic while the incomes of 99% of humanity fell and depression rates in the US skyrocketed now affecting one in every three US Americans.
We are deeply social creatures, who yearn for meaning, purpose, and connection. Yet, as the brilliant late David Graeber found, in countries like mine, the majority of people find no meaning in their work and believe that they have a job that is either contributing nothing to the world or actively making it worse off.
The problem is that there is now an almost perfect inverse relationship between your income and your societal contribution. This is why hedge fund managers make millions while most of the workers we deemed the most ‘essential’ during Covid continue to receive poverty wages. There is nothing natural or inevitable about this setup. For decades we’ve evaluated our progress and development by our level of economic growth and developed policies that have encouraged and rewarded large investors, corporations, and entrepreneurs who are efficient at generating wealth and profits.
But people are now recognizing that we’ve confused means and ends for too long — because what’s the point of living in the richest era in history if our planet is on fire and we all have to stand six feet apart? Recent surveys show that 74 percent of people in G20 countries, like the US, are calling for their national economic priorities to move beyond wealth and profits to prioritize social and ecological wellbeing.
This call to action sits at the heart of the Wellbeing Economy movement. It is the recognition that we need to stop treating people and the planet like we’re here to serve the economy and start treating the economy like it’s here to serve us. Across the world, this movement comes under different banners, but whether you call it ubuntu, buen vivir, or a wellbeing economy, it’s about recognizing that I am because you are, and that what we need to prioritize is balance, not growth.
I remember feeling such shame when I heard an economist in Mozambique explain that it would take time to change their culture to achieve the level of “development” we enjoy in the US. He said that investors had a hard time in Mozambique because people would show up to work for a day or two and then leave and go back to their villages, only to return again once they needed more money for their families and communities. He said they lacked a “work ethic”. In fact, what they had was a culture that recognized ‘enough’.
I realized in that moment that I had no concept of enough. We do not ever consider this question in the US. There can never be enough because it stands in conflict with the cultural principles of ambition and progress we hold so dear. Asking myself questions around what I really want and when I will be satisfied was profound, and made me recognize that I needed wisdom much more than intelligence if I wanted to meaningfully change this economic system.
Our economy, or the way we produce and provide for one another, has always been a powerful mechanism for preserving, transforming, or even eradicating cultures. I believe that now more than ever we need to re-instill our economy with the cultural values of generosity and contentment. These are the two personal values that are most strongly associated with happiness, and as such are values that can rebalance and heal our world.
We are the economy and therefore we have the power to change it. We can build an economy that is evaluated not by the level of wealth it generates but by our level of wellbeing.
The US remains a chief architect of our global economic system and the cultural narratives that drive it.
As an US American, I want to apologize for the incredible damage my country and my culture has inflicted on the world. We are in a moment of profound and painful transformation. Paradigms are shifting and we are likely in our final days of empire. The US is in a bad way. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, I decided to move back to Vermont. I find hope in institutions like our town meetings, that we can facilitate participatory processes to discuss and re-evaluate the things that truly matter. That despite the dog-eat-dog, winner-takes-all narratives that permeate our culture, you still find people caring for and making time for one another, and using their voice and freedoms to speak truth to power. We have the capacity to build an economic system that encourages the best, rather than the worst, parts of us — a system where our work as caregivers, educators, artists, and stewards of the earth are truly valued for the happiness and wellbeing they bring.
But I also recognize we have a lot to learn and must look outside ourselves. For if there was ever a time to abandon ego and embrace new ways of thinking it is now. The crises we face are global — we’re in this together, whether we like it or not. I believe the wisdom is out there and that if we’re willing to take a step back, we’ll find sprinkled across the globe the blueprints for the better world we envision.
Above all else, I believe that once we realize we are the economy, we realize we can change it. And when we change it, we change the world.
Teaser photo credit: Mystic Art Design via Pixabay