‘Happy and prosperous’ New Year? Not hardly!

By Eric Mink

I don’t think anyone wished me a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year last month. Actually, I’m not sure anyone has ever wished me that. “Happy and healthy,” definitely, sometimes with a “sweet” tacked on, which is a nice touch. But “prosperous”? Nope.

I don’t know why that’s the case, but I’m not complaining. “Prosperous” sounds off key to me for the Ten Days of Penitence, with all that intensity about sin, atonement and forgiveness and the imminent sealing of our home pages in the Book of Life for the coming year.

Besides, setting aside concerns about prosperity – craving it, obsessing over it – for a few days isn’t exactly a hardship. The rest of the year, it’s all we hear about.

Think I’m exaggerating? Try to remember any day without some report or another about an economic indicator: housing starts, retail sales, unemployment in the private sector, employment in the public sector, stock prices, quarterly earnings reports, bond ratings, orders for durable goods, orders for goods that fall apart when you open the package, the consumer price index, the producer price index, even the index of leading economic indicators.

And then there’s the Gross Domestic Product, the GDP, the total value of all economic activity in a country, the oracolo di tutti oracoli of economic indicators. The U.S. GDP is about $14.6 trillion a year, more than that of any other country in the world, and by a very wide margin.

But what happened to the “happy and healthy” part?

– People in the United States, on average, die younger than people in 23 of 32 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. With an average life expectancy of 78.2 years, Americans are tied with Chile for 24th place.

– Children die as infants at a higher rate in the United States than in 29 other countries of the OECD.

– The U.S. and Turkey share the distinction of having the second-worst rate of poverty among OECD countries.

– And it’s pretty clear that Americans are feeling disconnected and discontented. There’s a sense that something’s wrong and getting worse and it’s been building since long before the economic crisis of 2007-2008.

A new Congressional Budget Office report released in October, snappily titled “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007,” bring things into somewhat sharper focus. The CBO data and analysis confirm radical shifts of income distribution over the last 30 years. The vast majority of proceeds from economic growth has been funneled to America’s wealthiest class, leaving the rest of us treading water or going under.

But the deification of market forces and the parallel demonization of governments that gaveth to the rich and tooketh from everybody else also did collateral damage. In his 2008 book, “High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families,” Los Angeles Times economics correspondent Peter Gosselin laid out how ordinary Americans had been left without “the security of expectations.”

As businesses have replaced full-time staff employees with short-term contract workers, Gosselin wrote, middle-class men and women have seen their incomes fluctuate wildly from year to year, making it very difficult for families to plan for the future. Another shift-from pensions that paid retirees specific amounts to 401k-style retirement accounts that left employees at the mercy of the unpredictable stock markets-added to the feelings of worry and uncertainty.

Simultaneously, conservatives and free marketers have been pushing for the shredding of government safety net programs, some of which stretched back to the aftermath of the Great Depression. Individuals, they said, should take responsibility for creating their own safety nets in case of misfortune-a lost job, a serious illness, a car accident, a house fire. Yet even if that might have been possible in the past, planning has become all but impossible as people’s lives have become increasingly insecure.

Late in 2008, President George W. Bush’s TARP program passed Congress, creating a multi-billion dollar safety net for banks and other major financial institutions and very likely sparing the world from complete economic collapse.

But many people saw it as nothing more than bailout for the rich, and the free-floating anger of ordinary Americans, which had been building for years, now had a target and burst into the open. This anger initially fueled the Tea Party. But Republicans like former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, funded by conservative billionaires including the industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch, moved with astonishing speed to connect with the Tea Party movement. They artfully managed to redirect its anger away from the abuses of deregulated corporate sectors and toward liberals, moderates of both parties and progressive policies that actually would benefit them.

Now it’s the Occupy protesters in cities all over America. They’re generally younger, more liberal and more broadly informed than many Tea Party followers initially were. And they’re starting to be taken more seriously as they focus attention on the gross imbalances of wealth that have hurt so many individuals and families, and on the mis-ordered priorities of mainstream political leaders.

How much impact they’ll have is impossible to predict now, but they might find some inspiration and useful direction in a new book, “The Pursuit of Happiness: An Economy of Well-Being,” by University of Maryland and Brookings Institution economist Carol Graham.

Graham and other academics have spent years designing and conducting surveys of people all over the world about happiness, and studying and analyzing the results. They’re trying to identify and clarify which meanings and nuances of happiness change from culture-to-culture and which stay constant. Graham believes it will be possible to get hard data on the subject and apply that knowledge to the development of specific policies. Financial concepts like income and the all-seeing, all-powerful GDP have a part to play, but policymakers don’t have to blindly let the “prosperous” part drive the process.

The ultimate goal, after all, is to improve people’s opportunity to pursue contented, fulfilling lives – however they define it-and contribute to their country, their society and their fellow human beings in the process.

May Graham and her colleagues have a happy and healthy new year.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. His e-mail address is [email protected].