The School of Athens, Raphael. Plato on the left, Aristotle at right at the painting’s center.
One of our Chicago readers and long-time friend Greg Gleason – who was here with us for dinner recently and suggested formulating ideas for the next city rather than whining that the world was coming to an end – has raised some interesting suggestions worth considering.
At the outset, Greg notes that we suffer from bad public policy aimed at helping us fulfill a dysfunctional idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness.’ The quotation marks are his, and I take him to mean the kind of crass, self indulgent, individualistic, consumer culture of the therapeutic (“I do this or want this or act this way because it makes me feel better”) that passes for happiness in our society. No argument there. Which sent me back to my library, and Mortimer Adler’s wonderful little book, “Aristotle for Everybody.”
It occured to me that Aristotle’s definition of happiness would be a good guide for all public policy makers. Pursue the virtues of love and justice and courage and honesty and modesty and friendliness, for therein lies happiness. Practice moderation and self-restraint. Do not own a Hummer if you live in the city. Eschew McMansions. That kind of thing. We could make this a kind of oath of office.
Next, Greg suggests that we institute full-cost pricing of the ‘consumption of public resources.’ In this category he places goods like water, food, gasoline, wood: consumable goods. But he adds to this list such things as driving on highways, and the use of other public resources that need maintenance, renewal, and occasional replacement. I love this idea.
First, because the resources he lists are all increasingly scarce. We in the U.S. consume 320 times more than the people in Kenya, for example. (This calculation comes from Prof. Jared Diamond, in a sensational editorial he wrote in the NYTs in January: www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/opinion/02diamond.html). Pricing consumable resources at their true cost is simply a must: we MUST consume less. This does not mean an icky life – the Brits, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the French, the Italians all consume less than half the energy and resources we do, as Prof. Diamond points out, and life there is pretty swell.
And second, as someone who has spent a lifetime designing and constructing public infrastructure (roads, bridges, transit, city halls), I have always known that we could build things much more robustly and permanently than we do, but we can never convince politicians to tell taxpayers the dirty little secret: build beautifully and durably the first time for a bit more money, or build it, and pay for it, over and over and over. The current estimate to care for our aging and neglected infrastructure: $1.6 trillion.
His next suggestion is related, and I like it too: make depreciation and replacement costs part of any public budgeting process. This is in lieu of passing all the costs of public construction on to our grandchildren without a clue as to how to pay for them. $1.6 trillion is a lot of money.
Other suggestions include placing a cap on inheritable wealth, requiring that anything above an established limit be given away. I guess I would add given away to a not-for-profit, but since this is not a problem we will ever face, I like this idea, too…
Thanks GG, for joining the conversation!