The clue, as they say, is in the title. Or rather, two clues. Umair Haque’s argument in this short but fascinating and energising book is that our model of economics – and of ‘business as usual’ – has had its day, and that it now fails to serve us. Not an entirely novel argument, except that he has the bravery to move beyond mere protest and offer us at least a preliminary sketch for a more uplifting alternative. If you have the mental appetite for a challenging wake-up call, this is the textual equivalent of a pint of espresso (although you will need a Kindle to read it on).
The challenge begins with a comparison between economics and psychology. While the latter traditionally sought to address and minimise pathologies (on the basis that an absence of them meant a healthy mind), it has spawned a new paradigm of positive psychology that focuses on fulfilling human potential rather than merely on curing mental illness. The scale was extended to cover not just zero down to a negative figure, but also upwards to a positive figure. Haque contends that economics, however, still operates on the basis of a negative paradigm. What we call a healthy economy is one where ‘economic pathologies’ have been minimised or removed: if we remove barriers to commerce or trade, the economy will enjoy ‘health’. And as business is based on this economic paradigm, business-as-usual follows suit:
“Business” as we know it, live it, and do it is the expression of this economics of antipathology.”
Just like a patient on a nineteenth-century couch, our regimen rests on a foundational belief: that, at its best, an economy is one that’s not visibly, wheezingly unhealthy.”
That “at its best” duly comes in for a sustained philosophical, economic and intellectual kicking. What do we mean by “best”, and – more importantly – best for who, exactly? Wedded to models forged in the industrial era, we gauge economic health on the basis of output, and GDP on the basis of financial capital, but – Haque contends – we too rarely ask ourselves if these are adequate yardsticks. There is a repeated metaphor that explains it clearly: what we have is effectively a car where we have a rev counter that tells us the engine is spinning away, but no speedometer to tell us if all that revving is actually getting us anywhere.
This metaphor is reviewed in the light of a broader context of different types of capital – natural, intellectual, human, social, emotional and organisational – and recent trends. While much has been made of the stagnation or weakness of financial capital in the aftermath of 2008, indicators for many other types of capital have been falling for some time. Not only are we not generating financial wealth as vigorously as we might have appeared to have been doing in earlier times, but we’re not creating ‘the good life’ – the one that is fulfilling in ways beyond the ability to buy stuff.
Haque’s first call is to move away from the negativity of economics to a replacement based on a Greek word (eudaimonia) that represented their model and vision of this ‘good life’. In a eudaimonic evaluation, any concept of ‘rich’ has to be fundamentally re-written:
[…] rich with relationships, ideas, emotion, health and vigor, recognition and contribution, passion and fulfilment, and great accomplishment and enduring achievement, exactly what “business,” “output,” and “product” seem so achingly deficient at producing. That concept of prosperity is very different than the one we know today.”
Think back to that comparison with positive psychology: this is an attempt to redraw our concept of prosperity to embrace far more than financial wealth and to incorporate ‘higher-order wealth’ – the things that give human life a sense of meaning and fulfilment. (Although the book is a very different outlook on life to Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge – see our review – it’s call for measuring fulfilment rather than the rev counter of product has interesting echoes in the Prime Minister’s interest in a national ‘happiness index’, but is considerably more explicit in its argument that traditional measurements aren’t giving us very uplifting readings.)
This isn’t a book that is going to satisfy those looking for detailed case studies – although detailed research is cited, some of it from Haque’s own Havas Media Lab, revealing that at least some of our world’s largest businesses have started to grasp some of the message and wrestle with some of the issues. (Haque is explicit, however, that even the best performers against his lab’s revised indices still record plenty of black marks.) Nor is it a book that provides neat ‘7 easy steps’ checklists for the reader to obediently tick off – indeed, from his written reactions to some elements of modern “business”, it’s highly likely the author would consider them a form of either self-delusion or torture.
That said, he does provide some outline first steps for organisations looking to move ‘from business to betterness’, and to examine how they can contribute to a higher order human wealth beyond shareholder value. Calling for vision and mission statements to be replaced respectively by ambitions and intentions, the shift is more realistically one of focus. Strikingly similar to another common contemporary failure of corporate communications – the tendency to write as if the organisation is its own audience, as noted year after year by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen as one of the biggest usability gaffes – the problem with most vision and mission statements is that they talk only in terms of what the organisation will achieve for itself.
What’s mostly strikingly absent is any sense that the wider benefit stands to gain anything from its continuing existence. There’s plenty of competitive aggressiveness, but the talk is of shares of the cake rather than making the cake bigger. You don’t need to move far beyond the limitations of a product-output based GDP model to see a link with the very contemporary and very widespread worry about a lack of growth: as Haque has by this point already argued, “business as usual” isn’t necessarily delivering successfully even on its own terms.
What the book quite clearly isn’t is a dewy-eyed call for a return to simplistic living based on an ancient model: it’s a call for humankind to move on, and to do so for its own sake. As the author concludes:
For the Greeks, unfurling the thread of kairos [a turning point or critical moment] often meant daring to challenge the will of the Olympians. But our challenge might be even more arduous: daring to transcend the built-in self-limitations of our own weather-beaten beliefs. Every critical moment asks nothing less of us than assuming the mantle of protagonists in the story of human prosperity. It’s probably a lot easier to just keep punching the time card.”
Even in the digital equivalent of just 64 pages, this is a very challenging read even if it’s a fundamentally modest one on the author’s part – he is firm in his closing paragraphs that his sketchy blueprint is not the answer, but that it exists to be bettered. But what he wants for all of us is for us to live better, truly richer lives and to experience betterness. As he commented on his Harvard Business Review blog:
Creating a better 21st century means choosing to stop living in the 20th century”.
This betterness extends beyond the economic – it takes in the social too. Not merely at the level of Corporate Social Responsibility, but at the level where our definition of economics is adapted to see the role of the economy as being to serve the well-being not just of itself but of the rest of human life too. The message here is that old models have outlived not just their context but their usefulness, and we must face the challenge of changing them. And that challenge is not his, but ours.