Itâ€™s been said: money canâ€™t buy happiness. For a long time now, that maxim has dueled in my mind with an idea found on a refrigerator magnet that used to be in my grandmotherâ€™s kitchen (God rest her soul).
The refrigerator magnet said: â€œMoney canâ€™t buy happiness. But it sure can make misery a whole lot better.â€
I just got back from a fabulous Florida vacation in which the power of our money culture was on display in all its grandeur. But not even the magic of Disney and the dazzle of Miami Beach â€“ products of the American capitalist dream â€“ could prevent glimpses of misery.
Nevertheless, I have lots to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Vacationing in Florida with your significant other and a handful of good friends can be a wonderful thing.
On one of our letâ€™s-not-go-to-a-theme-park days, we left the outskirts of Orlando and drove south to Miami Beach. We met up with an acquaintance of ours who, when he bows his head in gratitude before diving into the holiday turkey, will give thanks for his 15th floor apartment.
Standing on the apartment balcony you can take postcard pictures of Miami bay with the downtown skyline as a backdrop. Itâ€™s a sight to behold.
Just down the street is South Beach where turquoise water with white-capped waves splashes against the sand. The beach is just off Ocean Drive and, as you might expect, the avenue is lined with expensive clothing boutiques and restaurants with outdoor dining.
But I digress. Back to the apartment complex. Itâ€™s one of those places where you drive up to the front and the attendant parks your car for you. When we left, the attendant rushed off to retrieve our rented Ford Focus as we waited on the front steps.
The car was parked about 200 feet away from us but he insisted he bring the car right to the front steps. Just off to our right was a woman in a maidâ€™s outfit, sitting behind the wheel of a idling station wagon.
Just as the attendant was trying to back our car out of its temporary parking space and bring it to us, an elderly woman with a cane emerged from the apartment complex and limped toward the idling station wagon.
The attendant couldnâ€™t back our car up to the door because he was blocked by the station wagon. He rolled down the window and started to yell at the woman with the cane. I couldnâ€™t quite make out what he was saying but it was obvious he was motioning for the woman to hurry up, get in the station wagon and get the hell out of his way.
He backed up the car and quickly hopped out the driverâ€™s seat. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Sick…Sick,â€ he said, pointing at his head, implying that the woman with the cane was sick in the head for having the audacity of holding up a guest whose car couldnâ€™t be fetched immediately.
What kind of economic system creates such attitudes and expectations in which the (perceived) â€œwinnersâ€ are afforded such power and the â€œlosersâ€ are treated with such indignity? Imagine the resentment and distrust that such a social system fosters. How can such a set-up be sustained except with violence and deceit and might this have something to do with all the misery we see in the world today that we are trying to spend our way out of?
As we drove off, I thought about my grandmotherâ€™s refrigerator magnet and something a classically-trained economist told me recently during a discussion about capitalism and the so-called anti-globalization protest movement.
Lamenting the economic ignorance of those who protest such an efficient an economic system, he told me: economics is a science not concerned with morality and ethics â€“ a strange comment coming from an intellectual heir of Adam Smith, the father of capitalism who also happened to be a moral philosopher.
Our discussion ended where these discussions usually do: â€œWe all know the problems associated with capitalism, but whatâ€™s the alternative?â€
Thereâ€™s this new book out, called: â€œParecon: Life After Capitalism,â€ written by Michael Albert. (â€œPareconâ€ is short-hand for participatory economics). Itâ€™s a comprehensive answer to the whatâ€™s-the-alternative question.
Albert writes: â€œAnti-globalization activists, who might more usefully be called internationalist activists, oppose capitalist globalization precisely because it so aggressively violates the equity, diversity, solidarity, self management, and ecological balance essential to a better world.
â€œBut rejecting capitalist globalization is not sufficient. What specific global exchange norms and institutions would do better than what we endure?â€
Thinking about that refrigerator magnet, that old woman with her cane and the economist, Iâ€™m convinced that Albertâ€™s book ought to be read and discussed widely because economics, ultimately, is about values. Buy the book, go to Miami and read it under a palm tree on Ocean Drive â€“ if you can afford it.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at [email protected]