First, I am going to ask for a little patience. This is a long-ish post and another of its kind might soon follow. The reason is that I am sorting through some new ideas and I think that the blog might be a good place to take them for a spin.
Here is the challenge: Is it possible to create an easy-to-understand, flexible, useful framework that can truly integrate aging, public policy and management?
Let’s start with the conventional wisdom…
Aging— The aging of America (and the rest of the industrialized world) is a demographic “plague of locusts” which threatens the financial underpinnings of the status quo. (namely the greedy geezers are going to bankrupt us all)
Public Policy— Policy-makers often present choices in terms of a zero-sum game. For example, if we expand eligibility for this program, we will have to cut the resources available for that program. Policy is seen, almost exclusively, in terms of the transfer of resources from one group or program to another.
Management— Conventional business doctrine draws a bright line between the common good and the measurable performance of a particular organization. Whether the organization is for-profit or not-for-profit hardly matters, the most important thing is success in meeting particular quantified goals.
I can find exceptions to each of these statements but, for the most part, the exceptions will help to prove the rule.
Now the challenge is to find a way to unify these seemingly isolated domains. This will require us to gain access a deeper, much more fundamental level of meaning. My candidate for the role of unifier is…
Before proceeding, I need to unpack the conventional wisdom of “wealth.” People, countries, communities and families who are said to be wealthy earn this distinction, almost exclusively, as a result of their ability to attract and retain financial capital and its equivalents. Wealth is equated with access to and control over financial capital. Money is what makes “rich” rich.
The definition offered above holds true as long as access to financial capital can be seen as an end in itself. The Forbes list of the richest Americans operates on that basis and its list is ranked according to a strictly numerical accounting. When we venture beyond the world of the marketplace, however, we can see other kinds of wealth on display. We can honestly speak of a “wealth of knowledge” or comment that a person is “rich in friendship.” It seems that there are other forms of wealth and that our society does a poor job of accounting for them. This is, I think, understandable in that financial capital is a strictly quantitative affair and so-called “social capital” is almost exclusively qualitative in nature. Just to be clear, I am going to define social capital this way…
“The net value of all of the voluntary, reciprocal, social relationships in which a person, or community, participates in over time
I believe that I have the majority of philosophers and theologians on my side when I argue that real wealth is a hybrid that blends the virtues of access to social and financial capital.
Both are necessary…
Neither, alone, is sufficient.
Wealth Creation and Wealth Destruction
One more base to touch before we can begin using this “theory of wealth.”
When it comes to financial capital, we are immersed in powerful, highly accurate measuring, forecasting and tracking tools and methods. Just imagine walking into your local bank, asking for your account balance and hearing the teller respond, “Well I can’t say for sure, you see it sort of depends, on a lot of things, hard to tell, really. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?” Who would accept such an answer?
On the other hand, we find that considerations of social capital to be are bound to be inexact. “Hmmm. The value of the friendships that are part of my life? What my freely chosen, mutually beneficial relationships have contributed to my sense of well-being? That would be hard to say wouldn’t it?” Yes, that would be very hard to say.
As a result, the idea of wealth is gradually taken over (conquered really) by the equation of wealth and money. The “softer” side of wealth, in contrast, is exiled to the drugstore greeting card rack. Warmth. Sentiment. Love. Enduring commitment. Honor. Patience. Tolerance. Forgiveness. All of these thing, are at once vital to the “wealth” of every living soul and dismissed as strictly private, emotional matters.
A moments reflection show us that both financial and social capital can be created and destroyed over time. The accumulation of financial capital can be carried out skillfully and purposefully (recall the great “captains of industry”) or it can be a matter of plain dumb luck, such as a lottery ticket or an inheritance. Similarly, we understand that some people are able to build and maintain vast social networks which contribute to the quality of their lives in ways both tangible and emotional.
The same holds true for the destruction of wealth. Everyday, financial fortunes are lost as a result of poor management and the thoughtless assumption of risk. Everyday, the money that makes some people “wealthy” is lost because of chance events, runs of bad luck that disperse all that was gathered together.
We don’t often think of it in these terms (mostly because we are reluctant to see social capital as a legitimate form of wealth), but social networks, long a rich source of a person’s well-being can also be destroyed. Anger, jealousy, a grudge nurtured beyond reason, or the uncomplicated workings of misfortune, all are capable of damaging relationships and networks of relationships.
Wealth and poverty are complex phenomena which change with circumstances (that is they can be influenced but not controlled) and they involve matters that include but are not limited to access to financial capital.
The First Connection: Wealth and Age