Economics of Happiness Book Launch in Beijing, China

Mark Anielski at the Beijing Botanical Garden


Mark Anielski’s presentation at the launch  of his book The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth in Beijing, January 30, 2010.

I’m am very pleased to be joining you today for the launch of the Chinese translation of my book The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth. While I would love to be with you all in Beijing today, the benefits of technology means that I can join you from the comfort of our home here in Edmonton, Canada.

I would first like to thank Professor Jianguo Qi for championing the translation and eventual publication of my book into Chinese. Professor Qi and I have come to know each other both professionally and personally. I would also like to thank Fiona who has been wonderful in coordinating the publishing of my book in China. And a special thanks to Wang Hong my translator for today who I came to know during my wonderful visits to China between 2004 and 2007.

This book was motivated by my business students, both in the US and in Canada. I teach business students about how to build an economy of wellbeing and about the history of our economic systems, including the nature of money and banking.

In my book I begin by paying tribute to the encouragement and wisdom of my grandparents, my parents, to my wonderful wife and life-partner Jennifer Haslett, and to our two young daughters, Renee and Stephanie.

My grandparents, who grew up during the Great Depression and survived World War II in Austria and Germany, taught me the value of living humbly and moderately. They taught me to trust my heart and use my knowledge for improving the conditions of our society. My parents taught me how to dream and act on my dreams with conviction and leadership. They taught me about how to live a life of faith, love, meaningful relationships and about the virtue of meaningful, life-giving work as vocation.

My wife, Jennifer, has taught me the joys of love and reciprocal relationship; of reconciliation, laughter and most importantly of open and honest dialogue. And our two daughters Renee and Stephanie, teach me every day about unconditional love and real happiness. Like my grandparents, our children are teaching me how to celebrate life in the moment of experience and how to breathe love in each precious second of living. Children have a remarkable gift for asking tough questions; this book is dedicated to answering some of those questions which still linger into adulthood.

Like the book of life, this book is the result of years of many wonderful conversations and enduring relationships with friends and colleagues around the world

I believe we all share a common yearning for happiness and ultimately love. Each of us has our own unique journey in discovering these ultimate ends. But what are the determinants of happiness and our conditions of well-being — our genuine wealth? What, as Robert Kennedy challenged, makes life worthwhile? How might we measure our happiness and incorporate these measures into conventional economic measures of progress like the GDP?

Prompted by such nagging questions I began a journey into the origins of economic thought and economic systems. I realized that economics is more like a religion than either art or science. The more I probed its tenets, the more the scales of economic dogma fell from my own eyes and the eyes of those with whom I shared my ideas. In a sense our hearts began to open to truths that have long been stifled.

While some have defined economics as the dismal science, I find it akin to religion precisely because economic principles and tools form the guidance system of our modern states. Economists are the high priests of our capitalist systems. I count myself among the economic priesthood — but I am a priest who longs to understand the very premises and value-origins of our thought. As a professor of business and economics, I have found a hunger among my students to understand more clearly the articles of faith behind business practices. Many students question whether profit and financial wealth maximization should be the primary goals of business; they long for a more meaningful world where corporations are governed by ethics and principles of social and environmental responsibility. I am buoyed by this new generation of business and economic graduates who understand at the heart level that the current “new world order” can and must change.

In economics we have  reduced humanity to a collection of individual, independent, utility maximizing creatures. Success is defined by the accumulation of material and financial wealth over a lifetime. We are born into this free market ideology without questioning its morality or ethical foundations. So watermarked is this spirit of economics and capitalism on our lives that even though our hearts cry out for a more meaningful and genuine existence, we are sucked back into the squirrel cage of capitalism, running faster and faster to “keep up with the Jones,”  lamenting as we imagine a simpler, more meaningful, more genuine life.

I firmly believe we are at an important tipping point in human history. A shared consciousness is emerging which will be supported by enlightened, life-affirming economics.   This book presents my future vision: stewardship of what I call Genuine Wealth – those conditions of well-being that align with our heartfelt values about what makes life worth living.

The Economics of Happiness has four primary goals. First, I explore the nature and spirit of the current economic system. I want to better understand why many in the sustainability movement can’t seem to move towards a genuine, living and sustainable economic system. I wonder how Adam Smith’s seminal economics text, The Wealth of Nations, failed to consider the Old English origins of the word “wealth,” which literally means “the conditions of well-being.” The important work of Amitore Fanfani traced economic and capitalistic thinking back to the European Middle Ages where Fanfani located a pre-capitalist model that the sustainability movement may find desirable.

My second goal is to introduce the concept of Genuine Wealth: a new and compelling model for managing our personal, household, business and community well-being in accordance with the values that define our quality of life. Genuine Wealth is a practical system which measures and manages for sustainability the total capital assets of a community or organization.  Synthesizing emerging concepts like natural capital and social capital, Genuine Wealth creates a more comprehensive accounting system where human, social, natural, built and financial capital are all integrated into the balance sheet.  This vision of a living, sustainable economy is founded on the mutually reinforcing and integrated principles of efficiency, equity and reciprocity and was inspired by the cooperative economy of Emilia Romagna, a flourishing and vibrant region of Italy.

Thirdly I provide examples of applications of the Genuine Wealth model at the personal/household, corporate/business, community, state/provincial and national scales. I present stories from China, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic, the City of Santa Monica, California and Leduc, Alberta and explore systems like the US Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) and the Alberta GPI Sustainable Well-being Accounting System.

Fourthly I examine the nature of money and the current debt-based banking system. Mountains of unsustainable debt and the practice of charging interest on loans actually lead to the destruction of living capital and fundamentally undermine sustainable economies of well-being and happiness. I offer examples of alternatives to the current banking systems like the JAK Members Bank in Sweden, a cooperative member-owned bank that does not charge interest on loans. I present a Genuine Wealth money and banking model that returns the power of money creation to the people in community. Money could be created to serve the genuine needs of an economy of happiness, and private banks, by providing wise financial counsel to households and businesses, could contribute directly to the development of genuine economies of well-being.

While there is a growing library of books about sustainability, I offer here a new paradigm which is also a pragmatic system for the management and stewardship of the common wealth of nations. While other books might despair at the sad state of the world and our environment, The Economics of Happiness holds out hope that a genuine renaissance in economics, accounting and business practices is possible and that you and I can build communities of genuine well-being and happiness, a vision that is shared by many. This book is optimistic and predicated on faith that people of all nations understand intuitively what needs to change in order for humanity to move towards a more sustainable future.

Many people have asked me “how did you get to where you are?” My professional background includes economics, forestry, accounting and religious studies. After three university degrees and years working as a professional economist, I have developed an overview of the ways economic systems operate throughout the world. In my inquiry into economic systems I continue to ask the simple question “why?”

  • Why do economists, financial analysts, politicians and media fixate on growth measures (such as the GDP or gross domestic product) as the key indicator of human progress?
  • Why do economy and stock market indices have to keep growing if a community has achieved levels of material self-sufficiency and quality of life?
  • What is money and where does it come from?
  • Why is money always scarce?
  • What’s wrong with a steady-state, subsistence economy which has achieved sufficiency and homeostasis?
  • Why does free-market, capitalist economics look more like a cancer cell than the self-renewing life cycle of an ancient forest?
  • What is driving our more-growth, more-consumption obsession?
  • Why aren’t economists and our leaders asking hard questions: more growth of what? for whom?

My work in China, between 2003 and 2007  involved helping Chinese colleagues, including Prof. Jianguo Qi and other economists, along with my colleagues Dr. Peter Bartlemus  (from New York) and Laszlo Pinter from Canada, design a new ‘green’ national accounting system to take nature into greater account in China’s GDP estimates and economic policies, has led me to appreciate an ancient philosophy called xiaokang (moderation) first put forward by the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Confucius believed that a society seeking to achieve true harmony should strive for moderation and material sufficiency for all households of the nation. The term xiaokang literally means moderately well-off, describing a society that is well-to-do or fairly well-off in which the average person has a living status less than affluent, but better than in need. Xiaokang is based on the notion that genuine well-being is achieved when the households have their material needs met (sufficiency), people are living lives of moderation and material needs are equitably available and distributed to all (equity). This philosophy is a very practical one that promises peace and harmony in society.

This ancient Confucian philosophy is complimented by Taoist teachings about the importance of governing the affairs of the household, communities and the nation by seeking a delicate balance or harmony between heaven and earth. Inscriptions on many of the buildings in Beijing’s Forbidden City indicate that wise emperors continually walked a delicate line balancing heaven and earth in the ongoing pursuit of the Taoist Way or harmony. In the Hall of Central Harmony (Zhong He Dian) in Beijing’s Forbidden City above the throne of the 18th-century Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong3 hangs a sign that reads “The Way of Heaven is profound and mysterious and the way of mankind is difficult. Only if we make a precise and unified plan and follow the doctrine of the mean, can we rule the country well.” This is in accord with China’s ancient Book of Rites which states “When we handle matters properly and harmoniously without leaning to either side, all things on earth will flourish.” To follow the Taoist Way means to be in harmony with nature, governing by principles of balance and harmony, returning to naturalness and reality.

Modern economists in China have rediscovered these important concepts and are proposing the idea that China, in order to become truly sustainable, must pursue the ideals of a xiaokang society and harmonious development (i.e. economic development that is in harmony with nature). Chinese President Hu Jinatao and Premier Wen Jiabao recently committed China to the all-round building of a xiaokang (or moderately well-off) society. Today, according to the average Chinese citizen, xiaokang means owning enough property to be self-sufficient or economically comfortable and being free from hunger and cold or simply being comfortably well-off.

If China is genuinely committed to this new path of so-called harmonious development, green GDP accounting, and developing new measures of well-being and progress, this would represent a seismic shift in neoclassical economic development philosophy dominated by British-American capitalism. Indeed, I felt this irony most poignantly at a meeting in August of 2005 held at Chengde, the former 18th century (Qing Dynasty) imperial summer villa and mountain resort area just north east of Beijing, which Emperor Qianlong built. It was at Chengde in 1793 that  the Emperor Qianlong rebuffed the British emissary Lord Macartney from the British East India Company in his attempts to open trade with China. Qianlong dismissed the emissary, saying that China possessed all things and had no need for foreign goods or trade. This rebuff eventually led to the British engaging the Chinese in trade wars. It was at Chengde that I had the good fortune of introducing my Chinese colleagues to alternative measures of progress, the GPI and Genuine Wealth accounting. These new models seemed to resonate with my Chinese hosts. I would later be contribute a chapter in a book written for President Hu Jintao on how the GPI and the Genuine Wealth model could be adopted in China.

Harmonious xiaokang society, like Western notions of sustainable development, requires economic development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Yet, while many Western nations talk about how to incorporate the principles of sustainable development into national policies, most nations continue operating on a model of continuous economic (GDP) growth and increasing materialism. China has an opportunity to pioneer a new model of economic development. In this model, sufficiency of basic life needs for all Chinese citizens — not the mere accumulation of material possessions — is the fundamental objective.”

Thank you for having me join you today via the wonderful technology of Skype and the internet from my home in Edmonton in western Canada to your homes in Beijing and other parts of China. I hope you enjoy my book and begin to plant new seeds of hope in your hearts, in your homes, in your workplace and in your great nation in a world that longs simply to be happy.

Mark Anielski
January 30, 2010
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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