Malaise and Malaria

by Lee Boot


The big hope for Westerners in the past few centuries was the idea that things would just keep getting better and better for us. Unfortunately, unless I’m missing something, that curve of well-being has stopped bending and started sagging—badly. While a great mass of humanity has gotten out from under the thumbs of some kings, the only way for many to pay the rent now may be to work for the king whose first name is “Burger.”

What happened? We came so far. The stories I grew up with had us all on rockets to Venus by now. The heights we could achieve required only that we imagined them. We’ve done so much: liberty, laws, science and technology (though I admit, free renewable energy remains on my wish list) but the largest human problems—such as how we treat each other and the world around us, remain sticky and unsolved. And we mistake one kind of problem for another. For example, a million people die annually from malaria, or so we are told by various international health organizations, but it’s not really true. They die because they don’t have mosquito nets. They die for lack of resources. They die because those in wealthier nations only feel the need to contribute to solving problems, not to actually solving them. As it turns out, most in the developed world consider a million deaths a year in a far away country to be tolerable. But I digress.

Back to the subject at hand: whither the West. What if we’ve gone down the wrong path? What if here in the US (and elsewhere too) we’ve built a nation to do something that isn’t as valuable as we thought it would be? Generating big money for a small percentage of the population, though it appears as significant national wealth, isn’t a very good method of creating sustainable wellbeing for most people.

Oops. We thought it would be. Hell of a try though. Though studies have born this out and determined that the ability of wealth to increase happiness is far more questionable and minimal than we might have thought, particularly for wealth above a certain functional level, we haven’t seriously questioned the way in which our national policies make voracious wealth-building our national mission. It’s another episode of Those Darn Humans: just look at that wacky species ignore reliable information to their own detriment.

I had the opportunity to talk with Carol Graham, author of numerous books linking economics with well-being—happiness in particular. She’s involved in the global discussion about whether gross national happiness should be the measure of a nation’s success, as it is in Bhutan. There is an American movement to make GNA our nation’s measure of success. Guess where it’s based? You guessed it, Vermont. (Unless Hurricane Irene washed it away).


  • p d bowman September 18, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    I’m a little sorry for the tone of my earlier response. My views aren’t that far from the author’s in a lot of ways, and I didn’t mean to be so snarky. It does seem to me, though, that there’s a real disconnect from ourselves represented in an article like this one. We ought to stop and think twice when we start to identify the national weakness, the roots of any national failure, with a fault we don’t really think attaches to ourselves (since, for one thing, we aren’t the rich people, are we). Isn’t it more probable that national failings will tend to be something close to, something close enough to be masked by, the positive self-conceptions shared most widely among us? And if we have a screwy, bipolar sort of complex of ethics & imagery surrounding wealth, doesn’t that suggest that we’ve really given material wealth, its presence & absence and all that variety of meanings it carries, perhaps too little place in our sense of purpose? One thing we certainly share, it seems to me, is a very lofty, unrealistic view of personal freedom, with unattainable goals in autonomy & privacy. At the same time, it may be that we share, if anything, quite a low view of wealth — a view that prevents us from taking the pursuit of it, as well as the sharing and the denying of it, seriously enough, so that (among other things) we end up with a very inadequate linkage between wealth and responsibility.

  • p d bowman September 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    If there’s something we can say the nation was built to do, it was to guarantee people a historically unusual level of personal freedom, wasn’t it? — Freedom to own and dispose of one’s person and stuff according to one’s judgment, freedom to hold and express one’s own ideas, freedom to associate with other people of one’s own choosing, freedom to defend oneself in court, and so on & on. There’s a pretty decent record of national obsession with this, going back to founding documents and all that conversation & conflict surrounding them. Somewhere in there we had a bloody civil war in large part about trying to be a little more consistent about guaranteeing people personal freedom. No record, on the other hand, of anyone so stupid as to try to write “The point, of course, is to get rich” into the Constitution. (That money doesn’t buy happiness may suddenly be scientific, but geez, it’s hardly news.) It’s plain enough that when you give people a lot of personal freedom, some of the people, at least, will take every advantage of it to get filthy rich, and they’ll do so to the detriment of others’ freedoms if they can. In this way, among others, giving people a lot of personal freedom turns out not to be problem-free. So let’s talk about that, then. Let’s have real discussion about national ideals and their consequences, the ultimately pretty complex problem of making it work for everyone without doing something that prevents it from working at all in the long run. Let’s not set up a silly straw man about wealth-building being the national mission, just to let off a little steam in the direction of Wall St.

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