We must not lose sight of what economic policy is all about: allowing people to lead dignified lives
By Gene Sperling | Democracy Journal | Spring 2019
For all the things we find time for in the ongoing economic policy debates I have seen or been part of over the last 30 years, there seems to me too little reflection on the most basic economic question of all: What exactly is our ultimate economic goal in terms of increasing human happiness and well-being?
Indeed, in the absence of that more clear focus on an economic fixed star, it becomes too easy to start to see the economic targets, political strategies, and specific policy postures as if they were the end goals in themselves—as opposed to means to arrive at a higher end goal for lifting up human fulfillment.
Over the years, I have found myself stepping outside of the normal metrics that define our national economic dialogue to ask myself: What would a person on his or her death bed say mattered most in his or her economic life? That is the question that guides this essay. It seeks neither to explore highly technical issues of economic measurement nor sort out competing theories of social justice. It is rather one policymaker’s attempt to go out of the comfort zone of numbers to delve into this larger question.
At a moment when the very capacity of modern capitalism to avoid accelerating inequality, a hollowed-out middle class, structural poverty, and growing economic insecurity is being questioned—and even the role of work in a coming age of A.I. and robots is less certain—we should be stepping back to reflect on what is precisely the ultimate economic goal we aspire to. Simply put: If you live in times when major steps forward are needed, it is important to be clear on your destination—or at least to know the North Star that is guiding you.
My answer to the end goal question is what I will define as “economic dignity.”
I. Defining Economic Dignity
Like values such as freedom or liberty, economic dignity is a concept that brings with it great intuitive power, but usually lacks a rigorous definition. There is no shortage of usages of the word “dignity”—from showing grace under difficult circumstances (“He handled the rebuke with great dignity.”), to the basic respect all people are due by virtue of their common humanity recognized in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the respect for autonomy of the individual that Supreme Court justices from William Brennan, Jr. to Anthony Kennedy have found embedded in the core of the Constitution.