Most of us don’t really want to be rich, for better or worse
When it comes to economics, the central question to ask yourself is this: do you sincerely want to be rich? Those with long memories – or Google – know this was the come-on used by the notorious American promoter of pyramid schemes, Bernie Cornfeld. But that doesn’t stop it being the right question.
It’s actually a trick question. Most of us would like to be rich if the riches were delivered to us on a plate. If we won the lottery, or were left a fortune by a rich ancestor we didn’t know we had.
Illustration by Andrew Dyson.Credit:
But that’s not the question. It’s do you sincerely want to be rich. It ain’t easy to become rich by your own efforts, so are you prepared to pay the price it would take? Work night and day, ignore your family and friends, spend very little of what you earn, so it can be re-invested? Come unstuck a few times until you make it big? Put it that way and most of us don’t sincerely want to be rich. We’re not that self-disciplined and/or greedy.
The question arises because the Productivity Commission’s five-yearly report on our productivity performance has found that, as a nation, we haven’t got much richer over the past decade – where rich means our production and consumption of goods and services.
When business people, politicians and economists bang on about increasing the economy’s growth, they’re mainly talking about improving the productivity – productiveness – of our paid labour.
The economy – alias gross domestic product – grows because we’ve produced more goods and services than last year. Scientists think this happens because we’ve ripped more resources out of the ground and damaged the environment in the process.
This is the nation’s do-you-sincerely-want-to-be-rich moment. And my guess is our collective answer will be yeah, nah.Credit:Oscar Colman
There is some of that (and it has to stop), but what scientists can never get is that the main reason our production grows over the years is that we find ways to get more production from the average hour of work.
We do this by increasing the education and training of our workers, giving them better machines to work with, and improving the way our businesses organise their work.
But the commission finds that our rate of productivity improvement over the past decade has been the slowest in 60 years. It projects that, if it stays this far below our 60-year average, our future incomes will be 40 per cent below what they could have been, and the working week will be 5 per cent longer.
It provides 1000 pages of suggestions on how state and federal governments can make often-controversial changes that would lift our game and make our incomes grow more strongly.
So, this is the nation’s do-you-sincerely-want-to-be-rich moment. And my guess is our collective answer will be yeah, nah. Why? For good reasons and bad. Let’s start with the negative.
If you think of the nation’s income as a pie, there are two ways for an individual to get more to eat. One is to battle everyone else for a bigger slice. The other is to co-operate with everyone to effect changes that would make the pie – and each slice – bigger.
For the past 40 years of “neoliberalism”, which has focused on the individual and sanctified selfishness, we’ve preferred to battle rather than co-operate.
Our top executives have increased their own remuneration by keeping the lid on their fellow employees’ wages. Governments have set a bad example by imposing unreasonably low wage caps.
‘Our top executives have increased their own remuneration by keeping the lid on their fellow employees’ wages.′
Then they wonder why their union won’t co-operate with their efforts to improve how the outfit’s run. Workers fear there’ll be nothing in it for them.
It’s the same with politics. Governments won’t make controversial changes because they know the opposition will take advantage and run a scare campaign.
But there are also good reasons why we’re unlikely to jump to action in response to the commission’s warning. The first is that economists focus on the material dimension of our lives: our ability to consume ever more goods and services.
We’re already rich – why do we need to be even richer? There’s more to life than money, and if we gave getting richer top priority, there’s a big risk those other dimensions would suffer.
Would a faster growing economy tempt us to spend less time enjoying our personal relationships? How would that leave us better off overall (to coin a phrase)?
How much do we know about whether the pace of economic life is adding to stress, anxiety and even worse mental troubles?
If we did go along with the changes the commission proposes, what guarantee is there that most of the increased income wouldn’t go to the bosses (and those terrible people with more than $3 million in superannuation)?
What we do know is that we should be giving top priority to reducing the damage economic activity is doing to the natural environment, including changing the climate. If that costs us a bit in income or productivity, it’s a price worth paying.
And there are various ways we could improve our lives even if our income stopped growing. Inquire into them.
Ross Gittins unpacks the economy in an exclusive subscriber-only newsletter every Tuesday evening. Sign up to receive it here.
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