A modest proposal to consider the psychic and social capital

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, feels the United States is in trouble and has asked people to report on what they have done to make things better or for their ideas of how to help. What he is referring to is the general malaise in the country, not just as the result of the growing gap between rich and poor, but to the fact that many people are demoralized and it is no secret that the U.S. ranks far from the top on many categories that rate the happiness of a country and its people.

Like some other industrialized countries, the U.S. bases its financial health on the money in its coffers as the result of what people buy and consume. The problem is that for the past several years many of the people (the consumers) are out of work or underemployed and paid too little and thus are too poor to buy anything but the basics.

One solution: now that corporations are considered people, and people are consumers, then corporations are consumers, too. The country could base its wealth on what corporations consume or what they have. Corporations have the money so it should not be a burden. Then the country could find itself in good shape and continue to ignore the plight of those other failed consumers.

That is a facetious suggestion, Mr. Schultz. In fact, my first suggestion is to divide the United States into at least five different countries. The Euro zone is faltering, and one reason is the differences in cultures. The U.S. also is made up of different, often clashing cultures that have become too difficult to lead from a central government. However, this modest proposal will meet the same fate as that of Jonathan Swift’s. So I will get serious.

Not long ago a member of the Cato Institute pointed to Estonia as a good example for the U.S. to follow. Estonia is a country of fewer than two million people with a land mass of under 17,000 square miles. At the time I scoffed at his choice of comparing apples and oranges. I take back my scoff. I would like to suggest that the U.S. be more like Costa Rica, which has a population twice as large as Estonia with a slightly larger land mass.

And Costa Rica has often been listed among the top 10 of the happiest nations.

In the United States companies are being just as productive with fewer people. This is explained by the invention of machinery that can do the work of humans, but it is also because the people who have jobs are overworked and underpaid and fearful of losing their jobs if they complain. Others are employed part-time or not at all.

It is often observed by foreigners in Costa Rica that more people than necessary seem to be working in some commercial establishments. There is more to a job than a paycheck to buy stuff. It means a reason to get up and be present. It means achievement and social connections and friendships. (To this day, I marvel each time I witness a Tico, who upon arriving at work first greets others with a kiss or handshake. And they do that every day.)

There is financial capital and psychic capital, and even social capital, according to economist Kenneth Boulding. Financial capital is concerned with productivity and profit, social capital includes family relationships, cooperation, and personal investment in the community, goodwill, fellowship and mutual sympathy, all of the positive things that family and friends and jobs offer. Psychic capital is the “accumulation of desirable mental states, and memories of pleasure, success, and recognition.” Work provides these emotions, too. People are motivated to add to their psychic capital. They want to feel good.

Just as the accumulation of financial wealth has its dark side of greed, so does psychic capital have a down side. Failure can lead to a depletion of psychic capital. Losing a job and being unable to support loved ones, feeling belittled or unjustly treated can create angry memories, and negative psychic capital.

Costa Rica, with its strong family and community ties, its stress on peace and cooperation and environmental survival, its recognition that working people are happy people, is rich in shared positive social and psychic capital. The people of the United States have accumulated too much negative psychic capital. Perhaps corporations could use the money in their coffers to hire more people than they feel are necessary and follow Henry Ford’s example of paying them well and promote the general welfare.

All I am saying, Mr. Schultz, is (with my thanks to Professor Kenneth E. Boulding), that if the U.S. government and people who have the power, would pay more attention to the wealth that is in social and psychic capital, perhaps hope and equilibrium will return to our country.

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