Entire nation should thrive, not just survive

Published 9:29 am Friday, July 19, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

What’s the most ethical and truthful way to measure a nation’s wealth?

That’s a question that probably doesn’t get asked all that often. We usually ask questions and make claims about more effectively or accurately measuring America’s “wealth.” Economists regular take the pulse of our economy by looking at gross domestic product, the price of crude oil or the latest stock prices on Wall Street. We measure unemployment and consumer confidence.

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None of those measurements will actually tell us anything about wealth, however, unless the definition focuses only on the short term, on stock prices at the moment, on how much money people are spending, or on profits and losses on corporate balance sheets.

A healthy, wealthy nation is focused on thriving, not on surviving. And if we want to thrive, we need to look at something that often gets overlooked in the analyses of economists: the condition of our land and our people.

This is a topic I have written about in the past, sometimes directly, but more often in the background. Others have, as well, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Wendell Berry, a farmer and writer from the Appalachian region.

When we look at wealth this other way, a way that is focused on longer term health, we ask different questions. How effective are the rules we set in place for using the land underneath our feet? How sustainable are our agricultural practices measured in decades not single growing seasons? How far up on the list of priorities is funding for public education? How accessible is health care for all citizens? What is our immigration policy?

As much as the word is abused by politicians of all persuasions, it is a matter of “fairness” in our society and our economy. A strong America emerges when the land’s rich productivity is managed, not exploited. America thrives when people’s needs are met and basic opportunities that flow from education and ability are available to all, without being dependent on ethnicity or income.

The current relevance of this discrepancy between true wealth and the fiction of wealth is visible in our agricultural practices, including the recent debate over the farm bill and food stamps. On display are the true priorities of politicians who say “Yes” to economic exploitation of farmers and the land by corporations, but then say “No” when it comes to a fair and compassionate way to feed hungry people.

We reward the spread of monocultures — corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see — and hinder agricultural diversity. We tile and channel rainfall into ditches and rivers hemmed in by dikes, wreaking destruction on communities downriver and depriving aquifers of water and farmland of the natural organic replenishment brought by regular spring flooding.

Do the farmers of Freeborn County have a greater right to profit from the riches the land provides than those living along the Mississippi or involved in the commercial fishery of the Gulf of Mexico, currently contaminated by agricultural chemicals? Do the children of wealthy families, regardless of ethnicity, have a greater right to enough healthy food to eat every day – as well as excellent schools with high academic expectations – than the children of the rural and urban poor?

Our understanding of true wealth also underlies situations like the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman stalks and confronts someone walking through his neighborhood, and then when Martin tries to protect himself, Zimmerman kills him . . . and gets away with it. We appear to want a society where the lives of armed and confrontational citizens are more valued than the lives of others.

Ultimately it’s a question for all of us. Will we support policies that help us do a better job of caring for our people and our land? Are we able to think beyond the next quarterly income or investment statement? Are we able to think about our own personal wealth without automatically including a dollar sign?

Think about your answers to these questions long enough, and I’m certain you will see the ways we are taking care of our land and people. Then keep those answers in your hearts and minds as you make decisions at work, at home and in the voting booth.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.