We need an economics of the heart

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From Justin Trudeau's mouth to your ears. Sounding like himself, which he does about 50 per cent of the time -- a good average for anyone -- Trudeau said he wants to "grow the economy not from the top down," like Stephen Harper, "but from the heart outwards." Eureka -- that's what we need: an economics of the heart. It's elementary: either people serve the economy or the economy serves people -- and you can find the answer in your heart.

True, that isn't what Trudeau intended. In a phrase in the same sentence ("a strong and real plan, one that invests in the middle class") he clearly means that the middle class, whoever they are, are the heart of our society. Barack Obama said the same thing three years ago though he used the term "heart of the middle class." In his paraphrase, or slip, Trudeau may have let himself show through. He's an emotional guy and does best when he trusts his gut. As a result he was instantly mocked for "Care Bear economics," singing Kumbaya, etc., as if he'd proposed basing economic policies on emotion and intuition. If I were him, I'd wear it with pride.

Why an economics of the heart? Because the other kind, the economics of the head, which everyone serious simply equates with economics, has totally failed, yet continues to rule. What was the most stunning event of the past decade? Not the collapse of the economic model in charge, during the crash of 2008. We all make mistakes. It's the fact that, afterwards, everything continued as before. No recognition of failure, no adjustment. Just carry on, even more brutally, with the same orthodoxy and austerity. Anyone trying another route, like Greece, gets tortured, and I don't mean metaphorically. It's embarrassing to be part of such an intellectually threadbare era.

Take a random example: air travel. Do people really need to look so anxious and miserable in the boarding -- haha -- lounges? As if they booked steerage. One airline -- Uzbekistan, but they're the canary -- plans to charge passengers by weight. There's also a design to reverse middle seats to add space and increase profits. Yet air travel is one of those areas that could add pleasure, glamour, adventure, romance, to people's lives. If you had a heart, and an economics to match, you'd reverse the priorities. It's doable. These aren't laws of nature. It took a huge amount of regulation and policing to deregulate the airlines into their current heinous state.

Are people ready for a serious reorientation? It depends on which people. Socialist Bernie Sanders isn't nearly as scary as he was supposed to be, to the young or the hard-pressed. Same for Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., running to lead the Labour Party, "People say he is an old left-winger or an old Marxist but to my generation his ideas seem quite new," said a young woman. "His ideas on renationalization of the railways and energy companies. Free university tuition that people of my generation have not had." It's funny how time makes old ideas new and vice versa. In fact business icon Donald Trump's proposals sound far kookier (build a wall the Mexicans will pay for) than Sanders' or Corbyn's.

This kind of paradigm shift in economics -- I'm calling it, after Trudeau, the economics of the heart -- is probably more crucial now than it was in the heyday of what was called socialism. Then the stakes were merely misery for the masses. Now the survival of the species is at risk due to climate change and the current model doesn't -- and can't -- even take that into account. When the environment kacks out, it's an "externality." You carry on modelling, oblivious. It really doesn't matter what you call it but "heart economics" sounds good to me.

Trudeau's dad, Pierre, mightn't have agreed. He was a Reason over Passion guy, though he never had to deal with species extinction as a priority. Besides, women -- with exceptions like Margaret Thatcher -- are usually more astute about high-stakes issues than men. Anti-nuke activist Helen Caldicott said, regarding economic theory (I'm quoting from memory), "The reason women don't think this way isn't that they aren't as smart as men; it's that they're not as stupid."

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: vl04/flickr

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