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Originally published Friday, December 9, 2011 at 5:32 AM

Book review

Authors dubious that economic growth leads to happiness

In "What's the Economy For, Anyway?" authors John de Graaf and David Batker argue that Americans should abandon their preoccupation with economic growth as an end in itself — instead, how well does the economy promote happiness? The authors discuss their book Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John de Graaf and David Batker

The authors of "What's the Economy For, Anyway?" will discuss their book at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave., Seattle. Advance tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006 and at the door beginning at 6:30 p.m.
quotes Thanks for this article. I look forward to reading this book to get an interesting... Read more
quotes I believe the usual concept of economic growth takes a short-term perspective; it prima... Read more
quotes Drew DeSilver writes: "Most economists will readily concede that GDP wasn't... Read more

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The American economy is extraordinarily resilient. Despite the frightening slump that followed the housing bust, the economy (as measured by gross domestic product, or GDP) is bigger now than it ever was. American workers continue to be among the most productive in the world: Output per hour worked rose a smart 4.1 percent last year.

But that, John de Graaf and David Batker argue, is precisely the wrong way to look at the economy. Those impressive productivity gains? Largely the result of fewer people working longer hours for the same — or lower — pay. That GDP growth? Most of the additional wealth flows to the already wealthy, while incomes for the vast majority of people have stagnated or even declined for decades.

Into this season of discontent and Occupy Everywhere protests comes de Graaf and Batker's new book, "What's the Economy For, Anyway? Why It's Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness" (Bloomsbury, 292 pp., $25), which if it hadn't already been in press could almost be mistaken for an Occupy manifesto. Too bad this breezy, accessible book glides past a few too many tough challenges to wholly recommend it.

Authors de Graaf and Batker seek nothing less than to persuade Americans to abandon our preoccupation with economic growth as an end in itself. Rather, they say, the economy should be judged on how well it promotes overall happiness; their standard, adopted from 20th-century conservationist Gifford Pinchot, is "the greatest good, for the greatest number, over the longest run."

Which sounds fine, as far as it goes. Most economists will readily concede that GDP wasn't designed to be the sole gauge of economic success. And as de Graaf and Batker amply demonstrate, by counting just about everything that results in money changing hands, GDP includes lots of things that make life worse (oil-spill cleanups, hurricane damage, prisons) and excludes much of what makes life worth living (clean air, time with friends, raising a child).

But just what promotes happiness? That's a values question, and as such is more open to dispute than whether my new iPad should count in GDP. It's also a lot tougher concept for a society to reach consensus on than de Graaf and Batker admit. Even the Northern European countries they repeatedly hold up as examples went through a fair amount of social strife before reaching their happy social- democratic equipoises.

More seriously for a book aimed at a mass readership, too much of "What's the Economy For, Anyway?" preaches to the choir. If things like paid family leave, national health insurance, greater urban density and carbon taxes were as sensible and obvious as de Graaf and Batker paint them, they'd be law already. They are, of course, in places such as Finland, the Netherlands and Germany, which raises the question of why the United States chose such a path so different from other industrialized democracies. But aside from a few swipes at Ayn Rand, the authors never seriously try to answer that question.

The book covers a lot of economic ground, from the unexpected productivity benefits of time off to the challenges of evaluating "natural capital." And despite some glaring factual errors (Richard Nixon didn't launch the FBI's COINTELPRO operation, which began 13 years before Nixon became president; it was the Federal Reserve, not the Treasury Department, that pumped billions of newly created dollars into the economy), it's an informative, thought-provoking read. I just wish it were more realistic about how difficult the sort of shift it advocates would be to achieve.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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