Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More Geography of Bliss

If King Jigme Singye Wangchuck were running for King of America, I’d consider campaigning for him. He is younger than me, but he has more experience running a country than all the Democrats and Republicans put together. If he were a kindergarten teacher, I’d transfer my kid to his class. Imagine your kid telling his friends, "I'm in the King's class!"

What’s so special about King Wangchuck?

In 1973 King Wangchuck did something truly remarkable. He decided that it would be his kingdom’s official goal to increase Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product.

He was king, a decider. He could decide things like that, even though at the time he was still a teenager. Really.

You probably have never heard of Bhutan, let alone of its former king. Bhutan is a small south Asian country perched high in the Himalayas between India and China. It’s a poor little country. The Bhutan National Highway, a mostly one-lane road, serves as the country’s whole “highway” system. Bhutan was the last country on earth to get TV and the internet—they came when the king lifted a ban on them–in 1999. If you remember Lost Horizon, the 1934 Frank Capra movie based on James Hilton’s novel about Shangri-La you’re getting the picture. Remote. Poor. Happy.

Bhutan isn’t famous for being isolated or poor. It’s famous for Gross National Happiness.

Gross National Happiness makes sense. I feel a close kinship to this idea, and not just because it appeared the same year I graduated from college and joined the workforce.

Gross National Happiness is a kindergarten value. Where did we lose track of it?

Why do we chase after money—Gross National Product—so mindlessly? We should give it some thought.

Actually, Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Bliss, in his chapter on Bhutan has done some thinking about this subject. I’ll let him take over from here:

What do the following events have in common? The war in Iraq. The Exxon Valdez oil spill. The rise in America’s prison population. The answer: They all contribute to our nation’s gross national product, or what’s now referred to as gross domestic product, or GDP, and therefore all are considered “good,” at least in the dismal eyes of economists.

GDP is simply the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. The sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally (assuming the sales price is the same). It’s as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one whit what kind of calories we consumed. Whole grains or lard—or rat poison, for that matter. Calories are calories.

GDP doesn’t register, as Robert Kennedy put it, “the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, or the intelligence of our public debate.” GDP measures everything, Kennedy concluded, “except that which makes life worthwhile.” Nor does GDP take into account unpaid work, the so-called compassionate economy. And elderly person who lives in a nursing home is contributing to GDP while one cared for by relatives at home is not. Indeed, he may be guilty of reducing GDP if his caregivers are forced to take unpaid leave from work. You have to give economists credit. They have taken a vice—selfishness—and converted it into a virtue.

It's probably too much to expect that McCain, Romney, Huckabee, Paul, Gravel, Clinton, or Obama (did I leave anyone still running out?) will get us off our GDP addiction and make GNH
America's priority policy goal, but we can hope.

And do what we can to make our classroom a small, remote corner of America where happiness reigns.

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