It's been said: Money can't buy happiness. For a long time, that maxim has
dueled in my mind with an idea found on a refrigerator magnet that used to be
in my grandmother's kitchen (God rest her soul).
"Money can't buy happiness," the magnet read. "But it sure can make misery
a whole lot better."
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 -- products of the American capitalist dream --
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
On one of our let'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 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. It'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. It's one of those places where
you drive up to the front and the attendant parks your car.
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 maid's outfit,
sitting behind the wheel of an 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 station wagon.
The attendant couldn'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 couldn'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 driver's seat. "I'm sorry.
Sick . . . Sick," 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 couldn't be fetched immediately.
What kind of economic system creates such attitudes and expectations in which
the (perceived) "winners" are afforded such power and the "losers" 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 grandmother'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 economic
system, he told me: Economics is a science not concerned with morality and ethics
-- 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: "We all know the problems
associated with capitalism, but what's the alternative?"
There's a new book called "Parecon: Life After Capitalism," written by Michael
Albert. ("Parecon" is shorthand for participatory economics). It's a comprehensive
answer to the what's-the-alternative question.)
Albert writes: "Anti-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.
"But rejecting capitalist globalization is not sufficient. What specific global
exchange norms and institutions would do better than what we endure?"
Thinking about that refrigerator magnet, that old woman with her cane and the
economist, I'm convinced that Albert'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 -- if
you can afford it.
Sean Gonsalves is a columnist with the Cape Cod Times. E-mail: email@example.com
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