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Books & Such

Dollar Mania 

The Good-Enough Life by Avram Alpert appears at first glance to be another self-help book; albeit one whose title suggests rather low aspirations. Good-enough equates with mediocrity and who among us wants to live a mediocre life?

Closer examination of Alpert’s ideas, however, reveals an ethics-shifting proposition that the country’s current economic system—in which individuals work hard to get ahead in a competitive environment of strivers—is contrary to human nature. Indeed, even for those who are really good at the current system—billionaires, for example—the associated stresses, anxieties, and misguided motivations to pile riches upon riches have a detrimental effect.

From a very practical standpoint, for those with much, the argument stands that wealth is the reward for hard work, intellect, and innovation. This is just not the case. Rather, wealth accumulation today often occurs without any measurable benefit beyond the obscene amounts of capital rapaciously acquired by a very small fraction of the population.

And, in many cases, the dollars stockpiled come at the expense of both the businesses that actually do produce something and the workers they employ (see the links to recent articles about the abuses of Private Equity firms at the end of this column).

At the same time, in this age of material abundance, millions toil away at poverty wages without access to health care or a decent education for their children. It’s estimated that more than half-a-million Americans live on the streets.*

As far as our economic system is concerned, Alpert calls for establishing a floor below, which no one can fall through, and a ceiling through which no one can rise.**

If this sounds like Karl Marx has worked his way into my thinking—and Alpert’s—you wouldn’t be far off the mark. But here is where Alpert asks a fresh question: Why does our society measure human success in dollars in the first place? In other words, why capitalism?

While Alpert agrees that “it is true that capitalism is better than most previous economic systems, it is nevertheless a ruthless, exploitative, and alienating system in which those with access to capital are able to make their profit off the toil of others.”

Capitalism as we practice it is often associated with the ideas of eighteenth century Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith; and Alpert evaluates his ideas neatly. Simply put—and this is how the wealthy would have us all see it—Smith argued that if we work hard in our own best interest, the combined efforts will lift up the whole of society.

Unfortunately, this is not how it has turned out. Missing from this rich interpretation is Smith’s own language that makes him look much more like a social democrat than a free market conservative; even as this latter group holds up Smith as an anti-government zealot.

Alpert offers a closer reading of The Wealth of Nations (1776), where Smith writes of “a well-governed society [in which] universal opulence… extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

Alas, ours is not a “well-governed society.” The inequalities that exist today should have been tempered, Alpert writes, “through proper regulation, organized labor, and legal constraints.” 

These are, by the way, the same mechanisms that would help us preserve the very habitability of the planet; as many of the wealthiest among us have made their fortunes while both exploiting others and despoiling the environment. “The trouble is,” he adds, “that when you have so much wealth concentrated into the hands of the few, the levers of government are easily controlled by wealthy interests.”

In short, those who have “succeeded” in the current system have used their wealth to maintain the status quo as they herald capitalism’s virtues while feverishly denigrating those who have “failed” at it.

We are living in another Gilded Age; the first occurring during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. To drive home this comparison, Alpert cites Theodore Roosevelt’s criticism of the wealthy philanthropist of that era. “No amount of charities in spending such fortunes,” TR writes, “can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” 

Alpert acknowledges that philanthropy serves good purposes while positing that its primary function is to guarantee that givers continue to “benefit from the current system to keep things as they are.”

The reality is that our current capitalist system, Alpert notes, “equates human value with economic production” and this association, as evidenced by the goals of our education system, is made from the earliest stages of life. But why is this so?

This is Alpert’s primary observation: maybe we haven’t organized ourselves in deference to ourselves. For those of you not-so-thrilled to read an economic philosophy book, Alpert, on page 70, suggests that the reader should pause and watch a little television to animate his argument. I took his advice and binge-watched The Good Place streaming on Amazon.

The Good Place refers to—for lack of a better term—heaven. Despite the looming danger of The Bad Place—which is exactly what you think it is—this hilarious comedy also stands in for Philosophy 101. Indeed, one of the primary characters is Chidi Anagonye, a professor of ethics and moral philosophy who guides others as they ponder goodness, justice, virtue, and more really big ideas in exploration of the human condition.

As Alpert describes it, The Good Place helps us “realize that this whole system of dividing humanity into good and bad, winners and losers, deserving and undeserving, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential and value of human life.” While told in terms of what happens after we’ve died, The Good Place speaks directly to who we are here on earth.

After viewing, I returned to The Good-Enough Life with enthusiasm. As in The Good Place, Alpert puts forward that we need to completely rethink what makes the best society. What we really want is, he concludes, are “people who have a say in their lives, who find that their efforts are meaningfully rewarded, that their failures are adequately understood, and that they can have basic trust in the decency of both neighbors and strangers…such people are not easily corrupted by demagogues.”

Alpert’s arguments, much like those made in The Good Place, are backed up by historical assessments of human nature; which, of course, begin with good questions. Shouldn’t we measure humanity in terms of those things that bring us joy and contentment? How about creating a “general ethical framework” that de-emphasizes the dollar and promotes those things that benefit all of society? While acquiring wealth certainly has its rewards, should this be the end-all of our purpose? Are we to continue to celebrate and admire those as “great” simply by virtue of having reached the top of a social pyramid defined by dollars, or, should we step back and consider what it is that makes for a fulfilling life? Why not reward those who aspire to make society better not with dollars, but with the most natural of human desires, the affection of our esteem?

Alpert argues forcefully that this societal transformation would bring about “a world where there is less stress, anxiety, overwork, overuse, and injustice, and more joy, equality, respect, and an appreciation of the ordinary.”

Rather than admiring and thus pursuing wealth, we should admire and emulate those who – through virtue, wisdom, and compassion – improve society in terms consistent with human nature. Once our basic needs are met with “good-enough,” isn’t this, in the end, all we really need?

*See “How Private Equity Looted America” from Mother Jones, May 9, 2022 https://bit.ly/3M6o1QS

**https://bit.ly/3xjcPeH

***https://cnb.cx/3LYfSOw

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