In pursuit of gross national happiness

By Michael Weymouth

Hingham — A plaque on the wall in the School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, Bhutan displays a quote by former king Jigme SingyeWangchuck, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” The Bhutanese love their king, so it’s quite possible that Bhutan is indeed the happiest place in the world.

Not so in our country where President Obama’s popularity is below 40 percent at last count and is unlikely to climb anytime soon. If anything we live in a land where a perversion of the Bhutanese axiom might be “Gross National Happiness results from a high Gross National Product,” which, given the present economic situation coupled with the cultural and political divisions in the country, makes us one of the least happy countries in the world.

Still, we have one of the most enviable GNPs in the world. So why all the unhappiness?

At the root of our woes are millions of manufacturing jobs sent overseas by the private sector seeking low cost labor. With the advent of globalization, this was an inevitable but also very obvious scenario that our political leaders, going back to Ronald Reagan, should have seen coming and prepared the work force for. Not the least of these preparations would have been to initiate programs to retrain workers for the higher skilled jobs that are now going wanting. But that requires the kind of expensive, long-term investment that does not sit well with politicians whose constituents demand instant results. After all most problems are resolved within one hour on that great American snake oil elixir, TV.

These same constituents might actually demand long-term, constructive solutions were it not for, heaven forbid, raising taxes to pay for them. Instead many of them embrace the Tea Party call for lower and lower taxes, forgetting that you get the society you are willing to pay for. Conversely, the so-called socialist countries of Europe have far better education and public infrastructure programs than we do and yet manage to maintain a high standard of living simply because they accept the fact that you don’t get something for nothing.

These same countries also have lower crime rates, including murder, even though European countries rank very high on the list of countries in terms of gun ownership. Why? Because their societies are more just and equitable, thus reducing the kind of crime that occurs in a society with high-income disparity. In the meantime we have millions of unhappy gun owners made so by false claims by the NRA that our government intends to confiscate their guns.

Nothing raises our unhappiest quotient like the rising cost of gasoline, even though we pay half the cost per gallon that Europeans pay. When we were paying $4 a gallon they were paying $10 a gallon, the major difference being attributed to higher gas taxes which are earmarked for road and overall transportation infrastructure improvements. As a result European bridges are not falling apart and ours are.

We’re unhappy with our public school systems, especially inner city schools, but they too will require tax dollars to improve them, which is not an easy sell in cities such as Detroit, which are the hardest hit by the recession. But instead of hunkering down as a unified nation to help hard-hit urban areas such as Detroit, conservatives dismiss them as examples of liberal largesse and continue with the lower tax drumbeat. Worse still, conservatives have demonized the auto industry bailouts in the Detroit area as examples of more liberal-inspired socialism.

To hear conservatives talk, every undocumented immigrant in America is living off the system, even to the point where they receive free medical care and education for their children without paying taxes. Per a recent study by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants paid $8.4 billion in sales tax, $1.6 billion in property tax and $1.2 billion in payroll tax. Undocumented workers also pay income taxes at a higher rate than the wealthiest one percent. An analysis by the Center for Tax Justice states, “On average, undocumented immigrants make about 2.5 percent of what the one percent earn, and yet their average state and local tax rate is about one percentage point higher than that of the nation’s wealthiest people.” Many Americans are unaware of this added tax revenue and instead want to spend billions for a 50-foot fence along the entire Mexican border.

The First Lady’s program aimed at preventing childhood obesity is another source of unhappiness fostered by the far right, which points to her efforts as another example of the federal government telling its citizens how to live their lives. Virtually every other federal program that addresses the obesity issue in this country is similarly demonized, even though obesity is one of the major contributors to the high cost of Medicaid and Medicare.

The American unhappiness quotient wouldn’t be complete without taking into account the Affordable Healthcare Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. It should be stated that the ACA is a very complicated piece of legislation full of wrinkles that in all likelihood will take several years to iron out, but for starters, it would help if Americans at least took the time to read a summary of the law. To wit, in a recent poll, a majority of Americans had a negative opinion of Obamacare, but a positive opinion of the Affordable Care Act. Go figure.

Bhutan, by the way, is another one of those socialist countries that provides free healthcare to its citizens, which no doubt contributes to their gross national happiness as well as to their birthrate: Bhutan’s infant mortality rate is less than 5 percent, while ours is higher at slightly less than 6 percent. The Bhutanese parliament has also prohibited the sale and distribution of tobacco, because, as the posters in that country state, smoking kills you. However, in this country we happily retain the right to kill ourselves. One can only imagine the outcry if Congress were to propose a law outlawing smoking.

Maybe every other election cycle we should invite the king of Bhutan to rule our country for four years. Much could be accomplished by someone who stated at his coronation, “I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing; I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children.”

Ironically, an American visitor to Bhutan cannot help but notice one of the most ubiquitous Buddhist images found in almost every Dzong (district center.) It is a symbol of harmony and cooperation; in order to rise higher to achieve a goal, three of nature’s critters, a monkey, a rabbit and a bird, are perched successively upon each other’s shoulders while standing on the back of an elephant.

The elephants in this country might do well to take a lesson from the Bhutanese elephant.

Michael Weymouth is a Hingham resident and frequent contributor to The Hingham Journal.

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