This is a cautionary tale of a country in the Northern and Western Hemispheres of planet Earth, tucked in between the countries of Canada and Mexico. If this isn’t your country, please take this as a cautionary story for your land, so that your country doesn’t get ravaged by Frankenstein’s Monster, as this specific country, which heretofore will be known as the United States, or U.S., for short, has been.
Dr. Victor Frankenstein was the man who created Frankenstein’s Monster, whose name forever became synonymous with his creator’s. Dr. Frankenstein studied chemical processes and thought he could create eternal life and thwart the decay of living beings. His grand experiment in this was bringing inanimate matter to life through artificial means, ultimately culminating in the birth of a humanoid creature.
Dr. Frankenstein was horrified by the creature’s ugliness and fled from his monster; the monster, not understanding his genesis, was a tragic figure who just wanted to cultivate friendship and connection with others. Yet, after several disastrous encounters with the locals, the monster swore revenge on his creator and murdered his younger brother. From there, the story goes on, until Dr. Frankenstein realized he had to destroy the monster, and tracked him to the Arctic. At the Arctic, the scientist is rescued by a ship, but then dies after relating his tale to the ship’s captain. His monster, after learning of his creator’s death, is overcome by sorrow and vows to take his life; he then disappears, never to be seen or heard from again.
The story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster is the subject of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s an allegorical tale of the combustible mix of experimentation and shortsightedness. Mary Shelley’s use of Prometheus in the subtitle refers to the Greek God Prometheus, who has become known as a figure representing human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge and progress, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences.
The coronavirus is our Monster, untamed, unloved, wreaking havoc on an unprepared population; Dr. Frankenstein, the Promethean creator of the Monster, in this cautionary tale is GDP, the Gross Domestic Product.
(I’m using the idea of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation of his monster as a parable, as opposed to saying the coronavirus was created in a lab. I will leave that supposition to others.)
Gross Domestic Product
GDP is a monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a specific time period. The concept of GDP was first developed by the American economist Simon Kuznets for a U.S. Congress report in 1934, and by 1944 it was fully adopted by all nations around the world as the way to measure the growth of an economy.
In his later years, Kuznets criticized GDP, saying, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.” And the Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has said, “GDP tells you nothing about sustainability.”
GDP tells how well a country’s economy is growing, and every country pins their economic hopes on the latest GDP numbers. It’s the U.S. that takes it to the extreme: endless growth and endless profits is the end all and be all in the U.S., no matter the wreckage it incurs upon the citizens of the country.
A citizen’s well-being, level of happiness and fulfillment, and sense of purpose and mission have no role in the GDP. The only way that shows up is if a person feels unhappy, unfulfilled and lacking of purpose, a feeling of ennui that could lead them to either take anti-depressant medications, see a therapist, or both. They are then spending their hard-earned cash on tangible items, which adds to the GDP.
If instead, this same person decides to take matters in their own hands and practice self-care by eating healthy foods that they cook at home, taking long walks, reading books that may give them guidance, talking to friends as a way to gain clarity, and meditating – all to feel more centered and focused on what matters most – they are not helping the economy one iota, because they are not contributing to the GDP.
The Women in Adam Smith’s Life
Adam Smith, the Scottish philosopher who wrote the bible of modern-day economics, The Wealth of Nations, a book that gave credence to the philosophy of neoliberalism – of letting the free market reign – and with it, gave GDP its intellectual underpinnings, couldn’t have written his book without the help of two women whose assistance won’t show up in any GDP metrics.
Margaret Douglas was Smith’s mother, and it was because of her that Smith was able to write his book. Smith lived with her and didn’t work, while his mother took care of Smith’s needs, cooking his meals, cleaning up after him, doing his laundry – in other words, Smith was entirely dependent on his mother for his well-being; after her death, his cousin Janet then took over the role of looking after her cousin Adam.
Smith never gave credit to these two women in his life, as their work was intangible and had no bearing on the free market. Yet without them and their tending to all his needs, Smith never would have had the freedom to write his book.
And so it is with GDP: the intangibles don’t show up in the metrics. If you decide to cook for yourself, your friends, or your family, and then afterwards go for a long walk, you are doing harm to the economy, because you are not bolstering GDP.
It’s All About Growth and Profits
In the U.S., the emphasis on GDP is taken to the extreme. Everything is about growth and profits, first and foremost; the intangibles have no place. Health care, which is a sick-care, train wreck of a system, has been institutionalized as a profit-driven industry that’s a major driver of GDP; a common end product of this callous approach is people often having to choose whether they can afford medical care for their maladies – medical debt is the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., and the great majority of people who have medical debt have health insurance.
The 2008 financial crash in the U.S. was caused by large, too big to fail banks gambling truckloads of money in order to make untold profits. The crushing level of student debt in the U.S. is due to banks wanting to make untold profits, in this case on the backs of college students. The severity of climate change is a result of energy companies continually extracting fossil fuels from the earth, at the cost of raising the earth’s atmospheric temperature, in order to reap huge profits.
The list goes on and on about people – and the environment – suffering at the hands of large corporations and banks, whose priority is to continually wring dollars out of people’s pockets, all to satisfy the need to boost their bottom line, which then bolsters the GDP.
The Return of the Monster
Which brings us to the tragic monster of the coronavirus and the GDP, and specifically the sectors of the U.S. economy – health care and food – that brought it to life.
I pointed out in my earlier essay, Complexity in the Time of Corona, that viruses are not malicious; they are intelligent, full of complexity, and also full of information. They have a job to do: find a host and replicate. The damage they do is predicated on the susceptibility of the host, and the susceptibility of the host is predicated on whether the host has underlying health conditions.
Viruses don’t want to kill the host, because if the host dies, the virus also dies. Yet, if the host has serious underlying conditions, they aren’t capable of mobilizing the proper immune response to deal with the virus and lessen its blow.
The U.S. has been the most severely hit by the coronavirus, and the monster has exposed the systemic flaws of its economic system. As I said above, viruses are most lethal for those who are most sickly. And in the U.S., that’s at least 70% of the population, as 70% of the American population suffer from at least one chronic disease – even though the U.S. spends the most on health care: a whopping $3.6 trillion was spent in 2019, twice the amount spent per capita than any other country.
How could this be? Well, when you have health care and food systems that swear to the gospel of Dr. Frankenstein – meaning GDP – then you know sooner or later, Dr. Frankenstein will give birth to the monster.
I’m a doctor – I practice Acupuncture, Chinese Medicine and Integrative Medicine – and over the years that I’ve been in practice, I’ve seen tens of thousands of patients. The great majority are not in good health, as they suffer from serious underlying chronic and degenerative conditions. Many are looking for a medical miracle. Over my time in practice, as the revolving door of these patients shuffled in and out of my office – and my heart went out to each and everyone of them – I came to realize that one day there was going to be a reckoning, because the system was a ticking time bomb that was eventually going to explode.
That day of reckoning has come.
Edible, Food-Like Substances
When health care and food systems are perversely addicted to growth and profits above all else, sooner or later a tragic monster will show up. In the U.S. health care system, economic growth occurs by emphasizing sick care, not wellness – it’s not a conspiracy to keep people sick, it’s just the prevailing paradigm that’s rooted in the economic model. The entire paradigm is designed to maintain the revolving door in doctor’s offices (such as mine) and hospitals, and keep the customers coming in ad infinitum – and with it, the profits.
Imagine the amount of money that could be saved if people were encouraged to eat well by consuming a plant based, whole foods diet? The health care bill in this country would be a fraction of the $3.6 trillion it is now.
In tandem with the health care system is its partner in perversity, the food system – primarily the large food concerns. How can people be guided to eat well, when the food system – the growing, production and manufacturing of what you eat – is addicted to economic growth, all the while negating the public good? While self-responsibility to eat a plant based, whole foods diet is important, that factor in and of itself doesn’t let the food companies off the hook.
Food companies do everything in their power to addict Americans to the worst foods possible, through the inordinate amount of chemicals put into the foods that are grown and the animals that are slaughtered; to the concoctions they create – what Michael Pollan has called “edible, food-like substances”; to the power they have in setting food policy; to the propaganda they push through marketing. American consumers have no chance against this onslaught.
It’s not rocket science to put 1+1 together – crappy health care system and crappy food – and realize that Dr. Frankenstein – GDP – created this tragic monster, a monster that has ravaged a sick and vulnerable American population poisoned on the altar of GDP, all in the name of endless growth and endless profits for just a few (endless growth and endless profits for just a few is the story of wealth and income inequality, a story best saved for another time).
This can’t go on. It’s time to restructure the foundational underpinnings of this nation that lies in the Northern and Western Hemisphere of planet Earth. Or else this nation will be devoured by Frankenstein’s Monster – whether the current monster or the next few monsters lurking in the dark.
Goodbye Dr. Frankenstein
The way to put it to rest is to throw Dr. Frankenstein to the curb and move beyond GDP and the addiction to growth at all costs. Countries such as New Zealand have begun to measure human well-being instead of GDP, and other countries are adopting the Human Capital Index as a way to measure the well-being of children. The nation of Bhutan measures their success by GNH – Gross National Happiness. The U.S. states of Vermont and Maryland have adopted the Genuine Progress Indicator. And many countries with far lower GDP than the US, such as Portugal and South Korea, have higher quality of life indicators.
So let’s say goodbye to Dr. Victor Frankenstein. His monster was a tragic figure, although it never asked to be a pariah. The monster of the coronavirus can be tamed, but unless we remove its creator – endless economic growth – from the equation, it’ll still be around to remind us of the hubris of Prometheus, of the scientific quest for knowledge in the name of progress, and the concurrent risk of overreaching or unintended consequences.
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