Building a Sustainable Economy
by Senator John Marty
August 28, 2009
Public officials are seeking solutions that will boost consumer confidence, increase consumer spending, and stimulate the economy. But most do not question what the public wants the future to look like and what kind of economy will provide the best quality of life and be sustainable for future generations.

As a result, things which might improve our quality of life – educational opportunity, preventive health care, clean lakes and rivers, and safer communities, appear to be unrealistic, distant goals because we are told we cannot afford to hire people (think jobs!) needed to perform those tasks.

Most of the economic debate in politics ignores this long-term perspective and focuses on just two issues: 1) how to create more jobs, and 2) whether the "invisible hand" of the market produces a healthy economy or whether we need government regulation.

The first issue is critically important. For the unemployed and those whose job doesn't provide enough income, getting a good job is the priority. The second is also important, but we need to talk about where we want the economy to head, before we can figure out how to get there.

President Bush's plea to Americans after 9/11, that we go shopping to rebuild the economy, is an illustration of the shallowness of much economic politics. We measure the health of the economy by the number of flat screen TVs and other consumer goods we produce and sell. But, contrary to the message advertising agencies drum into us, are we really happier when we possess more things rather than gain more opportunities?

With our current conception of economic policy, the more that people consume, the healthier our economy. More consumption = strong economy. In contrast we should remember that at one time, consumption was not admired; in fact it was the same word used to describe tuberculosis.

Under this measure, the economy of a community which experiences hundreds of automobile accidents, necessitating auto repairs or replacement, would be considered stronger than that of an identical community without those accidents. Obviously, nobody wants more auto accidents, but this illustrates what is wrong with the way so many view economic strength.

Without long term vision, Minnesota and the nation are just rebuilding an economy that is destined to fail. The reality is that a global population approaching seven billion, consuming finite resources faster than ever, is not environmentally or economically viable. Global warming, emissions of mercury and other toxins, declining resources – including fresh water, and space for landfilling our waste, are issues that need to be addressed. Even land for new development is a finite resource that is quickly being depleted.

The issue is too broad to resolve in this brief column, but it is essential that we begin a public conversation on how to address it. To start the discussion, let's envision what we value: a better quality of life through educational opportunities, preventive health care, clean lakes and rivers, safer communities.

Contrary to the claim these are too expensive to attain, we can achieve these goals if we choose a values-based economy over a consumption-based one. We have created an economy where we think nothing of paying a couple dollars per gallon for tap water packaged in "convenient" twelve ounce bottles, each of which we drink for twenty minutes and then dispose of the plastic bottles which will sit in landfills for millennia.

Instead of mindlessly purchasing tap water, juice, or soft drinks in disposable plastic bottles, we could look for other ways to deliver those beverages conveniently, safely, and in a sustainable manner. This approach would require jobs too, but they would be sustainable jobs.

We all would benefit from better health and wellness, more educational opportunity, a cleaner environment, less stress – all of which are sustainable.

What if our economy focused on employing people as educators? We certainly need this; we are the only industrialized nation where current high school students have a lower graduation rate than their parents. What if our state hired mentors to engage at-risk youth in positive activities after school so they don't get involved in gangs and drugs? What if we trained unemployed workers to make energy improvements in homes and businesses reducing fuel consumption and building a green economy? Instead of exporting dollars to the Middle East for oil or Texas for natural gas, we would be keeping dollars circulating in our economy, employing Minnesotans to make our homes and businesses energy efficient.

If we employed people to provide mental health and chemical dependency treatment to those who need it, we would drastically reduce crime and prison costs. And think of the improved quality of life if people could walk the streets at night without fear of assault. Employing people to provide this care would also dramatically reduce out-of-home placement of children. Think of the money saved, and the potential of all of those kids, growing up in households without abuse or neglect.

Because our political discourse is so focused on the present, we need to take a step back and figure out the kind of future we want to build; the kind of planet we want to leave for our children's children.

I hope this column will encourage thinking and imagining the type of communities we want to develop. Without that vision, we are allowing the "invisible hand" of the market to determine our future.

Let's get the conversation going.

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