Our cups runneth over

As you sit amid the wrapping paper and debris on Boxing Day, picking your teeth with a wishbone, I want to ask: What if that was it? Would it be enough?

I don't mean what if you were struck down tomorrow, or if you never saw another Christmas pudding consumed by flames. I mean what if, from now on, there were as many gifts equally good (or tacky) and the same Christmas dinner, in houses as nice and warm as this year and so on, but not more. Would Christmas still be worth it?

OK, hands down all the Grinches who think it's not worth it now. This is a thought experiment about public policy, not odd seasonal customs. And there is a curious cross-party, trans-ideological consensus that the answer to my question is, "No! Certainly not! If things don't keep getting better it's all just dust and ashes."

Seriously. Look at political manifestoes and punditry across the spectrum and you'll discover that no one even debates wealth. All they talk about is growth. Public discussion takes place as if it were incontrovertible that a man with $400 million would be unable to sleep nights were he not convinced next year he'd have at least $412 million.

I realize, incidentally, that this man had $700 million back in August and will be lucky to reach Easter with $200 million while the rest of us worry that we won't be able to afford needles next year, let alone trees. And I certainly hope things get better not worse. I'm not advocating penury as a solution to a slump. My view of voluntary poverty is that it's fine provided it's voluntary. All I'm saying is that there's something very peculiar about the way we frame public policy questions and this peculiarity risks extending deep into our personal lives.

Consider this throwaway line from a recent Fraser Institute book on taxation: "Economic growth is a widely used indicator of an economy's health. It is measured by the annual percentage change in a nation's gross domestic product (GDP)." I cite it not because I think the Fraser Institute folks are weirdos but because whatever their sharpest critics might find to dispute in this book, they'd get to the substance used for the binding before picking on this line. Why?

I'm not against wealth and gadgets and should confess up front that I currently own the coolest car, and phone, I've ever had. My current vehicle is cooler than all the other cars I ever owned put together. So is my phone, now that I come to think of it. And my laptop.

If gains in wealth bought as much happiness as you'd expect then people in the Middle Ages should all have been so miserable they'd have committed suicide if anyone had rope.

But if money could buy happiness it should have by now. King Henri IV of France supposedly said he hoped to see the day when every peasant had a chicken in the pot on Sunday. Fine. They do. What is the aspiration nowadays that requires us not simply to preserve what we have but to keep stuffing fowl into the pot until it bursts?

There is a legitimate national security impulse to have more and better stuff than your enemies. And dynamic growth will probably bring medical advances that matter enormously to those they affect. But not, surely, quality of life elsewhere. Must every book we get for Christmas be bound in Corinthian leather? Do we need cell phones that let us levitate and beam holographs to distant planets? When is enough enough? And if the answer is never, then what good is more?

I can see important arguments for preserving the way of life we now have, so that as people move through the cycle of establishing themselves, accumulating wealth, having families and eventually downsizing as they age, they can capture their special moments with a 2-megapixel cell phone shot rather than daubing them on a cave wall in France with a sheep's foot dipped in gunk. But we have that now. So why does everyone think we must always have more?

Possibly because public authorities have burdened us with an array of social programs whose incentives are as perverse as their financing is unsound, so our only hope is to outgrow our own stupidity and they do not want to focus discussion on the matter and we don't want to either. I'm just saying.

Or maybe everyone is convinced that a free market economy must either expand or die. But I've never seen this case coherently argued and Adam Smith didn't believe it so it's a bit weird that even people who hate him now seem to.

When you get right down to it, how much turkey can a man eat?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, EconomicsJohn Robson