How Can We Build An Economics For Humans?

Ways in which you can move toward a life built on betterness that will also help to spread the principle more generally.

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Imagine walking into McDonald’s and being served a delicious, hot and healthy meal by happy employees in a setting where you would actually want to linger with your friends. Maybe you order a robust juicy, thick burger and well-seasoned sauteed kale and you decide to have a meeting or get some work done in the well-lit, clean, comfortable, wifi-enabled space. All the packaging, surfaces, floors, decor and fixtures are either made from post-consumer waste or built with a zero waste goal in mind. There are solar panels on the roof, the franchise has partnered with local farms in a pledge to make all of its burgers with real, grass-fed beef (not that pink slime) and any leftover food is prepared for delivery to the local food bank or homeless shelter. The cashiers, making between $14 and $20 per hour, not only smile but go out of their way to ask if they can get you anything else. The back of the house prep workers, cooks, janitors and managers, also paid in a similar range or on salary, are all doing their jobs with a strange spring in their steps—gasp!—are these fast food workers actually happy?!

If you think this is a far-fetched science fiction fantasy, you won’t be blamed (especially given the recent news reports about the fast food giant’s abysmal hourly wages in America). Our typical interactions with the vast majority of the biggest corporations and brands are generally awful. They extract money from us for some gadget or product and we, the people powering the entire system, leave feeling icky. Or even if we don’t feel icky, we are not uplifted, we are not wealthier in any meaningful way—socially, intellectually, emotionally—after finishing this transactional process. Let me give you one more example to drive the point home…

Google gets a lot of praise for being a being a wonderful place to work; in fact, it’s been ranked number one for the last four years by Fortune. Although it arguably employs some of the country’s brightest minds, it recently unveiled its latest invention—the much maligned and stupid-looking Google Glass. Now, I’m not some techphobic guy living in a South American jungle off the grid. I own a smart phone, proudly write on a MacBook Air and partake in various social networks. Instead of coming up with newfangled devices that will enable us to spy on each other and watch porn while we’re out on dates, imagine if Google built a safe, efficient and easy to use mobile interface that provided for seamless compulsory voting for all US citizens? Impossible, you say? Actually, it seems like a much easier task to solve than, say, cars that are self-powered.

It doesn’t take an MBA to figure out that capitalism as it’s currently practiced is not working. From the streets of Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil and Greece to Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square, millions across the globe are beginning to revolt against the rampant corruption and predatory capitalism that has infected our public sphere and threatens to choke off democracy in the process. Thankfully, many people and organizations are pointing a way forward. I’d like to call attention to two of them. Pavan Sukhdev, a career banker, is the co-founder of Green Initiatives for a Smart Tomorrow (GIST) and has been at the forefront of advising corporations about how to meaningfully measure their human and natural impact. Click on the heading below for a short video on why so-called “externalities” like natural and human cost really matter for businesses:

Put a Value On Nature

Indeed, it’s difficult if not impossible to disagree with the mission statement of GIST:

Impacts on natural and human capital are often large and usually not measured or estimated in economic terms, and rarely if ever, managed. In an increasingly carbon-constrained world, with ecological scarcities (freshwater, soil nutrients, peak oil, etc.) looming large; it is dangerously short-sighted to think of these impacts as “externalities” and to ignore them. Similarly, some of the largest gains for governments and companies are in the form of human capital “externalities” – which impact (often as improvements) the level of education, skills, health and productivity of employees.

Umair Haque, a friend and colleague who is director of Havas Media Labs and the author of Betterness: Economics for Humans, has pointed the way forward in a lot of his writing and talks. Briefly, his thesis in Betterness can be summarized as: Our current economic ethos, built on measuring everything solely against GDP and sustained by an incessant need for bigger, faster, sleeker and more expensive McStuff, has failed us miserably. And what’s needed, according to Haque, is a system of betterness (to replace business as we know it) that recognizes companies must add eudaimonic value—human, social, intellectual and emotional capital—in order to be profitable and sustainable in the twenty-first century. It’s a known fact that most people wouldn’t care less if the vast majority of well-known brands disappeared overnight. So, the most obvious question is, what can I do? It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of seemingly intractable problems, especially when many of our so-called leaders are unwilling or unable to stand up for basic human needs and public welfare.

Nevertheless, here are five steps that you can take toward a life built on betterness that will also help to spread the principle more generally:

1. Consume with purpose. 

Do you really need that fifth pair of $350 jeans or third plasma screen TV? Make your purchases count by buying useful products that improve your life in non-material ways (making you smarter, fitter, wiser) from more sustainable sources. Trader Joe’s and Lululemon are two examples of companies that are trying to do right by their customers and the environment.

2. Reject bad systems. 

Everyone has acknowledged that most banks suck. They impose needless and absurd fees simply for the privilege of storing your money. I was recently told by TD Bank to expect a $15 per wire transfer fee, simply because I’m being paid by a company based in the UK. Explore smaller, community based banks, credit unions and other non-bank places to put your money. GoBank and BankSimple are two possibilities.

3. Ignore senseless bills. 

This might sound ridiculous or impossible, but yes, I’m advising you to not pay your bills. With student loans, figure out ways around it, such as deferred payments due to economic hardship. Medical bills, too. Especially if, like me, you have bills for basic healthcare that are the result of bureaucratic snafus amidst America’s profit-maximizing awful healthcare system (I’m currently avoiding a $180 lab bill for a basic blood test—and I have insurance!).

4. Build your future. 

I know, I know. You’re thinking: How the heck can I afford to start my own company? It won’t be easy. You may need to call in favors, crowd source your funding, explore what nonprofit and/or government loans are available, etc. But think of it this way. You can fritter away your days working in a cubicle shuffling paper or making widgets for a company that doesn’t value you, or you can take a big leap and try to start your own business. Many of the mega-conglomerates that you might see as your “competition” are going to fail anyway.

5. Change your environment. 

A few years back, I was feeling creatively frustrated and overwhelmed by the insane cost of living in New York City. Thanks to the wise recommendation and ample assistance from my good friend Marques, I did something I never would have predicted—I relocated to Austin, Texas, the land of sunshine, lower living expenses and ample opportunities for all types of artists and entrepreneurs. I stayed in Austin more than four years, made many friends, dramatically enhanced my professional life and network and was used that time as a springboard to several new and exciting journalism opportunities in New York City (including earning my Master of Arts degree at Columbia Journalism School) that are still bearing fruit. So if you’re not feeling your city or even your country, get the heck out of dodge.