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Jeffrey Sachs on the Pursuit of Happiness

30 Aug 2011 | Huffington Post

America is a country of vast wealth and vast anxiety. America's high Gross National Product per person, around $50,000, and its vast net worth, around $500,000 per household, are among the highest in the world. Yet growing numbers of Americans are unhappy, unhealthy, and increasingly pessimistic. America fought for independence to secure the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, but today happiness seems out of reach to tens of millions of Americans.

One reason is obvious. The income and wealth measures refer to averages, while inequality of income and wealth has reached all-time highs in our country. Wealth may be soaring, but since the top 1% of wealthy households have more net worth than the bottom 90% its not surprising that not everybody is thrilled. As the top 0.01% of households (about 14,000) receives more income than the poorest 25 million households, can we be surprised that the mood today is not over the top?

Yet there is something even deeper underway. In America today, the quest for profits has crowded out almost every other value. Corporations own our politicians, sports stadiums, charter schools, mass media, and even much of our military. The logic of the corporation has become the logic of America, to the point that the Supreme Court can no longer tell the difference between free speech and untrammeled corporate power.

America is threatened with something even greater than the loss of democracy as corporate power and corporate-owned mass media come to dominate our lives. We are at risk of losing our values as well, and even the birthright to the pursuit of happiness. GNP may be way up over the past thirty years, but social trust, honesty, and compassion are down. 

The time has come to reconsider the basic sources of happiness in economic life, not just for a better distribution of income and wealth, though we need that, but also for a better distribution of values, ethics, and goals. Economic progress is important and can greatly improve the quality of life, but only if it is pursued sensibly in line with other goals in the society.

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