Gratitude or Greed?

Before digging into the turkey and pie, my family shares what we are most thankful for each year during Thanksgiving.  While “health, family, friends and education” are mentioned year after year, this year after working with the girls at FMF and my MASTERY tutees, I realized, even more so, the extent to which I take many things in my life for granted.

During Black Friday, the very next day, I contemplated the mismatch between what my family shared at the Thanksgiving table and our culture of consumerism.  Despite claiming gratitude for family, friends, and health, things in life without a price tag, our primary metric for progress, Gross Domestic Product (GDP), strictly measures the total value of goods and services within a nation in a given year.  As Professor Dirk Philipsen writes, “GDP acts as a rulebook for our lives…and establishes the values we live by.”

In order to increase GDP, industries have developed inexpensive, fast-paced, and transnational techniques to manufacture enormous quantities of stuff.  According to Philipsen, GDP “encourages useless and pernicious production.” After searching through my closet for donations to the Refugee Clothing Drive, I managed to fill an entire laundry bin full of clothing and shoes, some worn just once or twice.  Although there is some debate regarding the casual relationship between consumer culture and environmental degradation, as the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, Annie Leonard, explains aptly in the short documentary, The Story of Stuff, a growing GDP depletes natural resources, contributes to carbon emissions, and heats the atmosphere at an alarming rate.  In addition to excessive production, many other harmful expenditures, such as medical bills from automobile accidents, an oil spill clean-up operation, or treatment for substance abuse, all boost GDP, contributing to a false perception of well-being.  As Robert Kennedy once noted, “it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Thinking even more about the disconnect between our “Thanksgiving values” and those measured by GDP, I wondered why there is little financial incentive to pursue a career reflective of the values we claim to be the most important.  Despite their incredibly valuable work assisting vulnerable populations and raising social capital, the social workers, counselors and educators whom I have partnered with at my various project sites, I would argue, are severely under-paid.  A Fortune 500 CEO earns more than a typical public-school teacher’s annual salary in a single day.  Furthermore, while researching potential law schools, I noticed that the median salary working in the private sector post-graduation is more than three times that of working in the public sector.  Although GDP developed as a response to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression, I would argue that this metric needs to be revised to be more inclusive of the values we express at the Thanksgiving table.