A Place at the Table


Last night I attended a roundtable discussion on Smart Economics for the Environment and Development (SEED), which is a Kenan Creative Collaboratory project hosted by Kenan Senior Fellow Dirk Philipsen. The roundtable was unusual in that it brought together experts from a wide range of fields: business, politics, academics, NGO’s, arts, and community building.

As the evening started, we were divided into four small clusters. My group included: the Director of Durham County Social Services; the Executive Director of the Kenan Institute for the Arts; an expert in rural development; a senior manager at TROSA; a director for one of The Conservancy projects, and an economics graduate student.

Professor Dirk Philipsen, a Duke Arts and Sciences Senior Research Scholar whose work focuses on sustainability and the history of capitalism, introduced the impetus for convening the roundtable. In his remarks, Philipsen argued that Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), as the dominant measure of success and a measure of wellbeing, is a problematic and flawed way of measuring economic growth and the health of a country. GDP represents the total dollar value of all goods and services produced over a specific time period; thus it reflects the size of the economy. However, as a measurement of the economic viability of a country, it fails to differentiate between harmful and beneficial activities, it fails to account for the environmental impact of the enterprises, it ignores the wellbeing of citizens, and it disregards the health of others countries, of society, of our planet, and of future generations. Rather, this dated measure reflects only the success of a homogenous group of privileged individuals.  Philipsen then challenged each cluster to create a more inclusive measure of economic wellbeing.

In an attempt to identify and formulate smarter goals for economic activity, my group tried to answer the following questions:

  1. What will our children need in order to thrive?
  2. How should we value the benefits and the costs in an economy (things like wealth, health, environmental impact)?
  3. What is development?
  4. Do we need economic expansion and economic growth to live well?

Although I do not think we came remotely close to figuring out an alternative to the GDP-centric worldview, the evening was filled with interesting conversations, perspectives, and examples of how GDP failed to capture the ups and downs of life.

The stories participants shared were most notable to me, as members of my group shared their personal backgrounds and work experiences. I wondered what that discussion would have looked like had I been a member of the July 1944 United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference — 730 delegates from 44 Allied nations who met shortly after the conclusion of World War II to determine international monetary and financial order — where GDP was adopted as a standard for assessing the economic health of a country. Certainly, we shared with our 1944 counterparts the basic human desires for peace, health, and happiness. And if 44 countries were represented at the “Bretton Woods (New Hampshire) Conference,” there must have been diversity of ethnicity, at least, if not gender and income. Did the diversity of our roundtable members generate a discussion much different that the post-war conversations held at this historic event? Were those different voices heard? Or did a more homogenous group of individuals back in the 1940s lobby for and succeed in passing this sterile measure the health of a nation that focuses on domestic production and state boundaries.

Philipsen’s roundtable discussion demonstrated the need to have diverse voices at the table, as we move toward a world economy, and generate new ways to access the planet’s and its occupants’ health. The importance of voicing all concerns was reaffirmed by last week’s “conversation” with President Brodhead and other Duke administrators about the racial injustices that impact our campus. While students had slightly similar personal grievances, it was clear that individuals needed to share their specific stories. Empowerment comes from having a voice.

It is challenging to formulate a practical and beneficial replacement or modification to GDP as a measure of economic health. But the SEED project definitely has the right idea in making sure that all perspectives are accounted for as we move toward a replacement.