The economy and happiness: let the Seattle discussions begin

A new book by Seattle-based writer John de Graaf takes an unconventional look at how we tie ourselves into knots of anxiety over concepts that add little value to our lives. A series of opportunities to hear ideas from the book begins with an Edmonds Community College appearance Wednesday (Oct. 26).

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John de Graaf

A new book by Seattle-based writer John de Graaf takes an unconventional look at how we tie ourselves into knots of anxiety over concepts that add little value to our lives. A series of opportunities to hear ideas from the book begins with an Edmonds Community College appearance Wednesday (Oct. 26).

Seattle author and filmmaker John de Graaf, who brought readers and viewers Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic in 2001, is back. In a new book, he and co-author David K. Batker address themes of consumption, economics, and the pursuit of happiness in an America boosting over 14 million unemployed. What's the Economy For, Anyway? Why It's Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness is what the title suggests, giving a broad perspective on the history behind Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product as economic measures, themes of global development, and the steady decrease in quality of life ratings for American citizens.

The book, which is scheduled for release by Bloomsbury Press early next month, is a well-researched tome that pulls insights from economists like Jeremy Bentham, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, as well as politicians who contribute policy suggestions that seem essential alongside necessary changes recognized by such strongholds of capitalism as the World Bank. Mix in a bit of John Muir and Michael Moore and you have a cuppa thought brewed from our very own daily grind. De Graaf and Batker’s work has arleady been named “Best Business Book for Fall 2011” by Publishers Weekly.

De Graaf and Batker establish an outline for solving America’ economic woes by way of a pamphlet written by Gifford Pinchot in 1905. Pinchot, the first chief of the United States Forest Service, was a Republican Yale graduate, forward thinking perhaps, radical, absolutely not. The pamphlet asserts a systematic approach to the very beginning of forestry and conservation — a way to do the job he had been hired to do, managing the public forests of America. He identified three key ideas, which de Graff and Batker utilize in their proposal for amending not just the economy, but also America’s attitude toward the economy. Pinchot wrote the basis of forest management should be to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run.” This trinity, Pinchot’s mandate, can be seen as “What’s the Economy for, Anyway’?” foundation thesis.

De Graaf is the founder of Take Back Your Time, a U.S./Canadian initiative to challenge what it cites as “the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment.” De Graaf and Laura Musikanski, executive director of Sustainable Seattle, are presenting a Happiness Report Card to the Seattle City Council documenting a year’s findings on the emotional well-being of Seattle residents, to be announced soon.

Beginning a series of appearances around Seattle culminating in a Town Hall appearance with Batker in December, de Graaf will speak with Musikanski on Wednesday (Oct. 26) at Edmonds Community College. Sustainable Seattle is the first organization in the world to develop local indicators of well-being, having done so in 1991. Musikanski  says she wants “to see Seattle become America’s first Gross National Happiness City.”

But it is not just attitude and policy that de Graaf and Batker's book addresses. They take us around the world to see what works where and ask some hard questions about why. Most importantly, the authors build a convincing picture of the United States’ poor report card on quality of life standards and discusses working models and comparative societal traits in detail. For instance, a World Health Organization study done in 2000 ranked the United States 37th in the quality of its health care. They write, “You might be surprised to know that by 2012, we Americans will be spending nearly $9,000 per person per year on our medical system, almost 18 percent of our whopping GDP. We’re already spending $2.5 trillion a year on health care. Soon, if present trends continue, we’ll be spending one dollar out of every five on health, or rather, sickness, care alone.” Or consider that the United States is one of only a handful of countries that mandate no vacation time at all for workers (alongside Guyana, Suriname, Nepal, and Myanmar).

Faced with a depressed economic climate, the Netherlands developed the Working Hours Adjustment Act, which allows for reduced hours while preserving jobs, benefits, and productive workplaces. This act has led the Netherlands to the world’s highest percentage (46 percent) of part-time workers, with benefits and without the stigma that accompanies part-time workers in the U.S. Germany has adopted a similar law.

What do top countries have in common? According to a 2009 Forbes magazine ranking quoted by de Graaf:  “They are highly egalitarian, having among the world’s smallest gaps between rich and poor; they pay great attention to work-life balance, having some of the world’s shortest average working hours; and they pay some of the world’s highest taxes.”

De Graaf and Batker propose many recommendations for moving America forward. Some of the best actions draw on successful models like New Deal-era WPA projects and new approaches employed in European cities. While looking at policy, immediate local adjustments in day to day choices are included, such as time spent engaging with others while walking during shopping at farmers markets and a natural flow of cultural orientation that urban planners, social anthropologists, and economists are increasingly recognizing as significant factors in thriving communities. Jennifer Lail, a University of Washington graduate student quoted in the book, observed the Danish attention to social connection while she was studying in Copenhagen. “People can stop to rest and chat awhile with friends or strangers. Before I came to Copenhagen, I thought I knew what livability was, but I didn’t.”

De Graaf cultivates a thesis-like structure for his outlook, which is great in terms of organization, building a case and laying out an argument. He is an engaging writer with an unusual perspective, reminding the reader that if, instead of looking straight on, you squint your eyes and cock your head (like a viewer would at those graphics with hidden images), sure enough something new and unexpected pops up. An entire section on solutions concludes the book, leaving this reader to return to earlier discussions. An alternate approach of offering solutions sprinkled more topically could improve accessibility of this highly readable, mind-shifting book.

This is a book for inquiring minds that do not stop asking at the first sign of a question mark and are are not afraid to engage openly in an examination of American values.

If you go: Upcoming author events: de Graaf with Musikanski, Oct. 26, 12:30 p.m., Black Box Theatre, Edmonds Community College, details here. De Graaf and Paul Gilding, Australian environmental business expert, Nov. 12, 7-9 p.m., University of Washington, Kane Hall, details here . Book Signing and talk with de Graaf, Nov. 18,6 p.m., Queen Anne Books, details here . De Graaf and David Batker,  Dec. 13, 2011, 7:30-9 p.m., Downstairs at Town Hall, $5, details here.


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