The experience economy

Someone asked me to comment on David Brook’s column on the experience economy yesterday.   I know some of you are not fans but I find his stuff thought provoking.

The column makes the case that Americans for the past 40 years have focused more on ‘meaning’ than ‘making’ money.  He concludes with this line:

During these years, commencement speakers have urged students to seek meaning and not money. Many people, it turns out, were listening.

I think Brooks is calling for Americans to pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

I guess you could say that people are mostly a product of their environment and I was never that enamored with the historical American obsession with making money.   I have friends and relatives down there (I lived in Virginia for six years) that are almost singularly focused on generating wealth for themselves – some working 2-3 jobs, some investing every spare nickel in speculative real estate, etc.  And a few of these folks – ex-NBers to be exact – spurn New Brunswick’s lazy lifestyle and dependent attitudes.

What I am saying is that I think the search for meaning does trump the search for money but you need a base load of economic activity to allow yourself to search for meaning.    It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs all over again.  If you can’t get the fundamental economic base right, you will not be able to get to self-actualization.

That’s my point about New Brunswick.  I love the fact that most people don’t want to work 1000 hours a week and that most seem to have a pretty good work-life balance.  I think we need to think about quality of life as more than just a straight economic equation.    Just piling on the cash it seems to me is a shallow world view.  But that may just be my Baptist upbringing.

But, and there is always the other side of but:

New Brunswick needs a base of economic activity to support its broader community and quality of life objectives.  That’s why I spend my days trying to think about these things.  Your ability as a society to foster a good work-life balance is based on having an economic foundation that generates enough income and tax revenue to pay for it.

Which brings me back to Brooks and the Yanks.

The Americans are right now out of balance – and have been for a couple of decades – they have financed their affluence with debt and phantom equity in their houses.   They want more collectively than their collective economic activity can support (health care for all, two year unemployment insurance, defense budget 20 times more than anyone else, etc.).

When this happens at a local or provincial/state level (like New Brunswick), national governments siphon off money from richer places to equilibrate.  When it happens at a national level, you get QE2.

That’s a long way of saying that economic and social goals need to be in balance or tilted towards economic if you want your society to grow and prosper in the long term.

3 thoughts on “The experience economy

  1. Suuuure. Its not that the manufacturing sectors fled to Mexico, its that the workers were sitting around smoking pot talking about Rousseau. The financial collapse didn’t happen because speculators were given free reign to destroy the housing market, but because people were standing on the street corner talking about ‘meaning’.

    Interesting stuff, but I’d argue on the semantics. Man is a social animal (some more social than others), so if you look at the rise of internet and telecom companies, they ARE developed on the basis of looking for ‘meaning’. Most of the owners of the big startups now (Microsoft excepted) were never designed to make their owners wealthy. The guys at RIM constantly complain so much that you’d almost feel sorry for them, til you remember that they are complaining about being so rich.

    Every ad man knows that you NEVER sell a product-you sell an idea. And to be brutally frank, people’s search for meaning is the easiest way to make a buck.

    Not exactly what you meant I’m sure, but I dont’ really believe that Harvard graduates have been told to ‘search for meaning rather than money’ anyway. They may say that at the convocation address, but they HAVE to make those kinds of comments then-especially since its pointless because they’ve just had 4 to 6 years of being taught the opposite.

  2. ” There was the tremendous increase in education levels during the postwar world. ”

    There’s the problem right there. The increase in education levels, especially in science and engineering, plateaued in more recent years. Investments in higher education (and the R&D that goes with it) have not kept pace with enrollments and tuition increases outpace inflation. In the U.S., fewer high-school graduates are going to universities.

    It is not, as Brooks claims, that the ‘low hanging fruit’ has been picked. Rather it is that the trees have stopped growing and are producing fewer fruit to pick. A way to get around that would be to invest more in education at all levels. Doing that, however, would mean raising taxes. Brooks would not want to admit that, so he prefers to believe that Americans are wandering around searching for meaning, rather than looking for work. The guy’s a moron. How does such a shallow thinker keep his job? Oh, to be a courtier to the rich – he’s found his dream job!

  3. I think it’s a fallacy to divide activities (and emphasis) between quality-of-life and the economic. Often, if not always, these are two sides of the same coin.

    Take education. Economic or quality-of-life? Obviously, it’s both – and neither. Culture, health, home, etc. all fall into that same category. There’s not much else.

    And, unless the only thing you can do in the way of work is to work at some low-end drudge minimum wage job, if your work isn’t contributing to your quality of life in and of itself, you’ve chosen the wrong profession. We are long past the era when the only motivation for work is sustenance. And if we’re not in NB, well, so much the worse for NB – I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

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