ON QUANTIFYING DELUSIONS
Over the years I spent in the corporate world, competition in a market-based economy demanded that managing capital costs and production efficiency became essential for survival. In response to this incentive, an impressive array of digital mechanisms was developed for identifying, tracking and analyzing the market centered effectiveness of what was going on.
In contemporary economic affairs, it can be difficult to escape injecting emotional factors that can distort ‘efficient’ decision-making. To reduce that vulnerability, the black-and-white world of mathematics has become a dominant analytic tool. One reason mathematics is so useful is there is an inherent, internal consistency generally uncontaminated by peripheral, emotionally-laden issues not recognized to be germane to the matter at hand.
Let me say at the outset I am, even in retirement, addicted to Excel software generated bookkeeping spreadsheets. After years of having to formulate, defend and manage a corporate departmental annual budget, I couldn’t have survived professionally without relying on my ever-at-my-elbow spreadsheets. Even now in retirement, ensuring we have means to be financially independent requires we carefully manage the remaining resources we accumulated during our working lives. As a result, I still regularly use mathematically based, digital tools to help manage our economic affairs.
However, an inherent vulnerability in using some tools is the risk the process itself can become an end rather than a means. Once we become captured by the notion that a digitized, internally logical system is automatically the ‘truth of a situation’ we can become dominated by it. Because some factor may be more readily quantifiable, we might easily miss the deeper significance of other more subjective decision components. There is apparently an inherent risk involved in a search for ‘analytical efficiency’ that might diminish a broader perspective.
Living as retired Expatriates in Central Italy is instilling some new insights and adding strength to perceptions we already had. Over the past two years, the deliciously slow pace of retirement has allowed self-indulgence in taking time to think. As a result, I’m becoming concerned that insufficient attention is being paid to more subtle and subjective aspects of simply living. Fundamentally, I am coming to believe there is risk in placing too much emphasis on the readily quantifiable to the detriment of developing and enhancing our capacity to live on a more deeply personal level.
To illustrate the point, some time ago I was talking with an acquaintance and was inquiring, how he was doing? He talked about his perceptions of his success, his spacious home, his job title, his prospects for promotion, his next new car, how his investments were looking, etc. Then I commented, “So, I guess you are happy.” He looked puzzled for a moment, looked away in thought, and then looked back at me and said, “Now that I stop and think about it, I think so but I don’t really know!”
Finally being free of the intense competitive pressures of professional life, I find myself looking back on what had seemed to be important symbols of successful professional careers. In retirement, so much of what seemed in the past to be materially significant, has simply faded away. And the power of their perceived significance seems to have evaporated in the process. We have come to realize market economy driven consumerism had conditioned us in ways we too little understand when we were in the midst of it.
Since becoming residents in Europe, our focus on broader affairs has also widened. The current European Community debate on financial interactions between the member nations is also raising some interesting questions relative to the process of quantification. Of course, to be viable, nation states need to remain financially solvent. Evaluations of relative Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and percentages of GDP represented by budget deficits need to be looked at. But I am also struck by the somewhat narrow characterizations heard in some quarters suggesting Italy may somehow be ‘in trouble.’
There is no doubt that Italy, among many other countries, needs to readjust some priorities and do more to reduce corruption and other drags on the actual productivity of the Italian people. But I don’t think I’m seeing as much determined discussion in the world of market driven economies to be addressing the significant levels of income distribution inequality that exists in too many countries and especially within the U.S. It is becoming increasingly apparent that narrowly based economic quantifications have become incapable of addressing the more important issues surrounding ‘quality of life.’ It is beginning to appear the actual lives of the human beings who make up the real core of the countries in the European Union, as well as the U.S., are becoming increasingly opaque behind the stacks of numerical tabulations.
I also seem to sense a short view of history among some in the European Community most notably Germany. In the immediate post Second World War period, morally informed and politically pragmatic voices in the U.S. determined that Europe needed to be stabilized as rapidly as possible. It was recognized as a necessity to prevent the kinds of social breakdown that had occurred after World War One. It was evident, social instability, exasperated by the ‘Great Depression’, in many ways, paved the way to the Second World War. As Americans, we can be proud of the ‘Marshal Plan.’
Additionally, the realpolitik of the post World War II period also demanded that West Germany needed to be significantly supported to provide a symbol of a vibrant, pro-capitalist comparison with the Soviet-style Communism on display in East Germany. The guiding principle was that a broadly based ability to participate in an economy that benefitted as many citizens as possible was a cornerstone for economic and political stability. Today, an increasing influence of ‘market dominated, economic forces’ seems to have blunted that perception. An over emphasis on competition in the marketplace seems primarily concerned only with ‘winners and losers.’
Yes, the Germans did create ‘the economic miracle’ by their own diligent efforts. And their capacity to integrate the former East Germany into a united Germany deserves admiration and respect. However, the aversion of Germans to repeat the inflationary economic spiral of the post World War I, Weimar Republic may be resulting in an over fixation with immediate deficit reductions in Europe. There appears to be an obsession with quantifications of ‘Deficit vs. GDP’ calculations. The result is loosing sight of what extreme ‘austerity measures’ means in the larger, ‘quality of life’ human equation. Apparently, quality of life issues are being sacrificed on the altar of quantifiable tidiness.
After living here in Italy as residents for a little over two years, my evaluation is the Italians have something more going for them than cold calculations of Deficit vs. GDP. The more subjective human interaction equation here appears to us to be in much better shape than in some other places we have experienced. I have to say candidly that I am proud to be an American and I truly love my native land. I served in its armed forces and served my country in other ways. But because I consider myself to be a patriotic American I feel I have earned the prerogative to recognize American cultural aspects needing improvement. My very considered opinion is on a ‘Quality of Life Evaluation Scale,’ Italy is significantly ahead of my native land. That in a nutshell is why we chose Italy and why we are still here.
The economic situation in this Central Italian, Provincial capital of Ascoli Piceno shares the need for a better economy and a reduction in unemployment like so much of Italy. But when it comes to the less readily economically quantifiable quality of life issues they have a real wealth. Many of the Italians we encounter exhibit warmth and radiate an affection within their families and among friends that is exceptional. Yes, Italians are more emotive but it is more than quantity of expression. These are genuinely caring and friendly people. We delight in having been accepted here. We frequently can’t go very far down the street before we are stopped to be in conversation and to be actually held physically in a genuine embrace. No quantifiable tabulation I can think of can adequately capture what we see and feel on a daily basis.
I have no idea how to place a quantitative value on a spreadsheet defining what it feels like to be immersed in a genuinely higher quality of life. After the 2008 collapse of the escalation of greed and deception that had become institutionalized in the market centered economic model, our financial statements don’t look the same as they once did. By choice, we don’t own any real estate anymore and in fact don’t even own a car. And yet, we feel so much ‘richer’ than we used to.
And if someone wants to know if we are happy, our emphatic response is “Absolutely!” It has nothing to do with what is readily quantifiable. It has everything to do with what we feel directly in our everyday, living experience.