America’s political elites are always in search of something new to obsess over. Sometimes it’s immigration. Ten years ago, it was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Lately it’s been economic growth.
Maybe that’s not surprising at a time when the economy is limping along after a series of nasty shocks. But the growth craze isn’t just a way for politicians to get themselves reelected. It’s proof of just how uncreative and narrow-minded our political vision has become. For the last few months, the only thing that DC can agree on is how wonderful growth is. The G word popped up in Obama’s State of the Union speech a neurotic five times, and Obama pulled out the metaphors to say that “our generation’s task” is to “reignite” the “engine of America’s economic growth.”
The GOP’s resident numbers guy and former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan criticized the administration and their allies for their progrowth policies. “They believe in this,” he gasped, “that if you spend more money, it produces more than a dollar's worth of economic growth for every dollar you spend." But Ryan, like any good Republican, believes almost the opposite—that the god of growth only accepts sacrifices in the form of spending and taxing cuts.
Like every latest and greatest grand national undertaking, the war on shrinkage is supposed to sound inspiring and confident. The numbers may be dry, but the words have to make tweaking tax brackets seem as important as defeating the British. That’s why Democrats have rolled out a budget scheme called the “Foundation for Growth,” and the Republican National Committee called its 100-page party reboot plan the “Growth and Opportunity Project.”
Instead of rousing our spirits, however, the politics of growth is as ugly and panicky as the politics that came before. We’re so blind to our madness, we can’t even remember how recently this same disorder befell us: before the economic crisis, if it wasn’t about national security, nobody wanted to hear about it. Naturally, this meant everything turned into a national security issue. Remember what nice people that turned us into?
Today, the temptation to make every policy into a plan to grow the economy is transforming us into a bunch of selfish, insecure codependents, terrified that we lack what it takes to live lives we don’t hate. If our party doesn’t take total control over economic policy, we tell ourselves, our economy will dash whatever hopes we had for ourselves. Without the economic growth that only our embattled team of half-bright wonks can engender, we’ll never fulfill our true potential! We’ll never live up to our capabilities!
From this perspective, no matter how much money you make or how successful you are, you’re constantly teetering on the edge of disaster. If you’re one of those Republicans or Democrats fretting over growth, you probably agree in broad strokes with Paul Ryan’s assertion that the purpose of the federal budget is to guarantee the “well-being of all Americans”… and you probably fear that without the right wonks in charge of the numbers, your well-being is on the line.
Our national fixation on growth papers over a lot of shameful insecurity. Not only does our anxiety push us to become the kind of people least capable of launching our own personal-growth plans, it encourages us to ignore the growing number of urgent issues that have nothing to do with the size of our per capita GDP.
In about five seconds, we can list about a dozen good ideas that won’t grow the economy. Breaking up the big banks? Beating back the prison-industrial complex? Preventing the government from constantly monitoring everyone forever? The longer you stare, the more the importance of economic growth seems to shrink.
Not only is harping on and on about growth anxiety inducing and intensely boring, it also reduces political discussion to the vaguest generalities. Democrats tell people they’re doomed unless the government bails them out, while Republicans tell people they’re screwed unless the government does absolutely nothing.
Here’s something everyone should consider: None of us are doomed. Nobody is screwed. Sure, your life might take some weird, sometimes even painful turns. You, like millions upon millions of us since the dawn of man, might experience heartache, disappointment, and tragedy. But the real source of our economic fears—the fear that we won’t be happy—has nothing to do with growth or anything that the government does or doesn’t do. This fear is an illusion based on our dumb human faith in the concept of plans. We stand a lot to gain from considering that nobody’s plan will save us—not ours, and not the designs of whoever is responsible for the economy in Washington.
Let go of our sense of dependence on plans, and something even more lovable than money and equality comes into view: being whoever it is you want to be and assuming responsibility for your own life. That way of being can lead to some strange discomforts. But it’s the only way to be.
Imagine what a nation of 300 million individuals who thought like that could do. Seriously, imagine it. Nobody in our nation’s capital is going to imagine it for you.
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