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Turn your back on opulence, America

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BestOfVegas.com/PRNewsFoto/File

(Read caption) This 2008 file photo shows the Las Vegas Strip at night. The nation's pursuit of opulence is a kind of bankruptcy. Does the US need a new direction?

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America's bankrupt, but not in the way you think. Not merely financially, but at a deeper level, it's bankrupt in terms of its understanding of prosperity – what a "good life" is imagined to be.

Try this thought experiment. What might you see if you were to look at the economy not through the lens of outputs – "industries" categorized together by industrial production – but outcomes?

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You might see, instead of an "energy industry," a resource addiction that saps bucks, drains ideas, and preserves self-destructive expectations. You might see, instead of food and education "industries," an obesity epidemic and a debt-driven education crisis. And you might ask yourself, who is that "financial services industry" really serving?

The above is what you might call an "outcomes gap": a chasm between what our economy produces and what you might call a meaningfully well-lived life, what the ancient Greeks called eudaemonia. While often translated as "happiness," eudaemonia is actually a bit more complicated. A better translation would be "flourishing."

Tell me if this sounds like "flourishing" to you: Today's economy lets you chow down on a supersize McBurger, check stocks on your smart phone, buy a McMansion on hypercredit, and watch "Jersey Shore" marathons on a giant LCD TV.

It's a vision of the good life that is all about opulence. And it's a conception built in and for the Industrial Age: about having more.

Now consider a different vision: not passive, slack-jawed "consuming," but living: doing, achieving, fulfilling, becoming, inspiring, transcending, creating, accomplishing. That's an alternate vision, one I call eudaemonic prosperity, and it's about living meaningfully well.

Here's how I'd contrast eudaemonia with opulence. The pursuit of opulence is predicated on having more, bigger, faster, cheaper, now – about immediate pleasure through material possession. The pursuit of eudaemonia is a more nuanced, complex conception of a good life, that asks: "How does the way you work and live make you smarter, fitter, grittier, more empathic, wiser? What did you build today – and how did it help someone live, work, or play meaningfully better?"

The truth is that hedonic opulence just might be what mathematicians call a "local optimum" – an apex we've reached, only to discover a whole mountain range beyond the peak. For while the recipe for opulence has been refined down to a science by economists, the truth is that the world probably can't afford it: China already consumes about 40 percent of the world's copper, and 50 percent of its cement, iron ore, and coal – but even so, it's achieved only 10 percent of American levels of opulence (at least as measured by per capita gross domestic product).

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Even if it was able to magically close that yawning gap, there's no formula for cleaning up the messes that emerge after the dish of hedonic opulence has been cooked – everything from climate change to pollution to inequality to fracturing societies, to name just a few.

From flat-lining incomes for most households to the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning in much of our daily work lives, we all know: Putting opulence on a pedestal is leaving us – has left us – not just fiscally broken, but intellectually, physically, emotionally, even spiritually unhealthy.

Hence, I'd suggest: Though it harks back to antiquity, eudaemonia's a smarter, sharper, wiser, richer conception of prosperity.

Umair Haque, director of a think tank in London, is author of "The New Capitalist Manifesto: Building a Disruptively Better Business."



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