What money can’t buy

The purpose of a good economy must be to improve human well-being. Redesigning economies to serve societies is urgent now as we grapple with the confusing challenges of getting more women into the workforce, providing care for increasing numbers of old people, and also creating more employment for young people

Arun Maira

[From Pixabay]

More women should join the workforce, because it is good for economic growth, say economists. More women should have freedom to join the workforce and get away from the drudgery of housework and childcare, say feminists.

Economists say India has fewer women working for money than other countries. Whereas for centuries, more Indian women have been working outside their homes than women in Western countries. Invisible in economists’ models of GDP, they have been working on fields; they have been sweeping public streets, and others’ homes and toilets; and serving as domestic help and child-minders for richer women to relieve them of their drudgeries at home so that they can have freedom to do whatever they want to do instead, in or out of their homes. 

The freedom to work

Michael Sandel, the US philosopher, organized a seminar on the Challenges of Global Capitalism at the Aspen Institute in Colorado in 2002. Twenty business leaders were assembled, mostly from the US and Europe, with three from India. I was one of them. Sandel asked us to read articles in journals and passages from books which he had selected to make us think more deeply about the social and ethical consequences of the global drive for more economic growth as the solution for almost everything. 

An article in an American magazine told the story of a young, upwardly mobile “two incomes two kids” couple in Los Angeles. Both husband and wife were well-paid professionals. They had a full-time Filipino nanny who took care of their two young children while they devoted themselves to competing with other upwardly mobile professionals and earning more. The journalist asked the mother how she felt about the arrangement. She had to work, she said, to afford their lovely apartment and two cars and other essentials for their comfortable lives. She was grateful the nanny was a motherly woman and was good to her children. In fact, her nanny had two children in the Philippines who her husband was taking care of with the help of her old parents. The journalist asked if her nanny was happy. The woman felt she appeared grateful for the opportunity to earn and send money home to support her family.

The journalist met the nanny too. She was happy with her employers she said. They were kind and paid her the going salary for nannies in Los Angeles. The money she sent home was essential to pay for her own children’s education. Did she miss her children, the journalist asked? She did, she said, but was compelled by her circumstances to leave them behind.

Sandel asked us to consider this arrangement. It seemed good for the economies of both the US and the Philippines. It worked for the young American woman who felt compelled to work to earn ‘enough’; and the Filipino nanny too who was compelled to work to earn. What about their children, none of whom was getting the full care of their mothers though one had a nanny to assist her, and the nanny had her old parents to step in for her? Though the work arrangements were good for the economies of both families, they did not seem the best for the all-round well-being of everyone involved.  

Feminists demand that women should have more opportunities to work to earn. They demand that corporations and governments treat women equally all the way up their hierarchies. Businesses need more workers. Women are an underutilized pool of workers, and an attractive source for them. However, women do not fit easily into formal business routines necessary for the efficiency of enterprises. For example, they want long periods of leave when they have children, and if their children are unwell they are distracted. They seem less able to leave their homes behind than men do. So, many ‘enlightened’ employers have set up nurseries on their premises. When I returned from Aspen, I was shown the attractive facilities that call centers in Gurgaon had set up. Most of their employees were young women—more diligent at their work, and less expensive to hire too—therefore good for their businesses.

I asked about the women who were looking after the children in the nurseries, and the women servers in their shining cafeterias (another perk for the employees). These women had become part of the formal economy and were being paid too. But, did any have children at home, and who was taking care of them, I wondered? The HR executive showing me around had not thought about that.

Older people are societies’ fastest growing and least used assets

Lately my attention has shifted to older people around the world. Like the parents in the Philippines of the nanny in California. Who are doing their bit of care giving—unpaid for, while their daughter is paid for caring for the children of another mother.

A desirable outcome of economic growth, is the increasing longevity of human beings. However, increasing proportions of older to younger people are causing concerns about who will care for older people and how. Older persons now need pensions for more years than were anticipated when schemes for pensions were designed. Government budgets are already squeezed to provide for the education of young people, better care for maternal health, and other societal necessities. Fewer younger people will now have to pay more taxes to support larger numbers of older persons also. But, working people cannot be taxed more than they are because they are finding it hard to provide for their own children, and have less money, and time, for the care of their elders.

More economic growth seems to be a panacea according to some economists. Increase the pie before you distribute it, they say. China has increased the size of its economy remarkably in the last three decades, lifting millions out of poverty. China has become the factory of the world. Millions of young people, men and women, left their villages to work in factories in cities and large industrial estates along the coast. They had to leave their children behind in their villages because their permits to work in cities did not permit them to bring their families with them. The authorities feared the cities would be turned into slums, hard pressed as they were to provide decent housing and infrastructure for their permanent residents. Thus, children were left with their grandparents who now had young children to also look after when they were growing older and needed more care themselves.

As Chairman of HelpAge International I have seen the conditions of older people in many countries. In Moldova, I went with our volunteers to visit the homes of older persons who were alone, with their children and even grandchildren far away. (Moldova borders Ukraine, from where refugees are pouring in to escape the havoc of war in their own country, and HelpAge is now organizing relief for them too).

Mostly these abandoned older persons were women. They recounted the sad stories of their lives. Their husbands had left decades ago to earn in a Western European country, leaving them to bring up their children alone. Often their husbands had stopped sending money home after some years. Lately their children had also left for other countries to earn, and hopefully send something back for their aged mothers, who were now living all alone.

Winters are harsh in Moldova and Ukraine. In late autumn, when we visited, volunteers—mostly middle-aged women—were delivering parcels of fuel and dry rations for the winter to these abandoned mothers. The volunteers were bringing material necessities, provided by an international charity, for them to survive through the remaining winters of their lives. “Donate so much and you can help an older person in Moldova” was their appeal, with pictures of wrinkled faces wrapped in cheap scarves.

The aged persons were thankful for the parcels. However, what they valued most of all in the visits of the volunteers, they told us, was a chance to talk to somebody. Also, whatever little help the volunteers could give them during their brief visits—fix a stove which wasn’t working, or post another letter to their family members hoping there would be a reply.

What these older persons were suffering from most of all was loneliness. What they craved for were social connections. They wanted to be included in the stream of society, rather than being cast away on its shores as useless people while the rest moved on busy with their own lives.

Medical experts have discovered that loneliness is a killer disease, says Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the USA, in, Together: Loneliness, Health, and What Happens When We Find Connection. Loneliness is killing even young people in the US, he says. Loneliness creates anxieties and causes depression. Young people take to drugs to escape, which affects their physical health too. During the Covid pandemic, when people were starved of social connections, drug abuse increased in the US. The US medical system provides high-class treatments to keep even a severally damaged body alive, at high cost of course. However, it would be cheaper and better, Murthy says, to create more caring connections amongst people in their daily lives. They would feel better and would not need expensive medical care.

I called on the President of Zanzibar in his presidential palace when the Board of HelpAge International met in Tanzania. He wanted advice. The Constitution of Zanzibar provides for the care of older persons. The government is required to maintain an old persons’ home where they can stay at the state’s expense until they die. He was proud of the quality of the home and the facilities in it. His problem was that though numbers of older persons were increasing in Zanzibar, as they are around the world, older people were not moving in—the home was almost empty.

I was taken to lunch by the minister of social welfare. The president of the older persons association of Zanzibar was also invited. Under the constitution, the state provides for an office for the association and for its administration too. The president was a grandfather. We talked about our grandchildren—which grandparents love to do. He lived in a cramped home with his children, who went out to work every day. His wife and he minded the children when they returned from school and also helped a little around the home. Thus, three generations were supporting each other in their own ways. They were socially connected amongst themselves and with others in their community. And that is how they preferred to live as long as they could.

The minister was listening to our conversation. She too had grandchildren. They did not live in the same house, but were nearby. Though quite busy with her government work, she too helped with baby-sitting. It gave her an even greater satisfaction she felt than her success in politics.  

So here was the explanation for the President’s dilemma. I asked the minister what HelpAge International could do to help her, and her President, to provide better care for older persons in Zanzibar. She said, please explain to the international development agencies that give us funds for the care of older persons (and also tell us what we must do with them), that it would be best for older people, and their families too, that we did not treat older persons as a burden on society. That we would like to improve facilities for care-giving for older persons in their homes within their communities, and not isolate them in beautiful old persons’ homes.

Scandalous numbers of deaths of older people in old persons’ homes in Canada, the UK, and the US, during the Covid pandemic, are causing even rich countries to rethink their solutions to the problems of ‘ageism’—of older persons being considered less valuable and even less respected than young people in most societies, because they are considered a burden, rather than assets of societies. Perversely, when they are put aside, they are a burden. Whereas if they were included in the social fabric, they could make many contributions for the well-being of others.

Indian realities

The numbers of older persons are increasing in India too with increasing longevity with economic development. The Indian government is hard-pressed to provide sufficient budgets for pensions. In fact, as other countries are, the Indian government wants to reduce pension payouts. Therefore, the solution for the gap in older people’s retirement income seems to be to enable older people to work more years to keep earning. Perhaps by equipping them with technological skills to keep up with more-up-to-date younger people who employers otherwise prefer. Meanwhile, young people are also finding it harder to keep up in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). Mixing metaphors, old people should not be compelled to keep running like hamsters to keep up with young people in a rat race to earn enough to support themselves.

An Indian organization that has been doing very good work for the care of elders for many years, is confronted with the same confusing challenges that organizations in other countries are: ageing populations, increasing needs for care of older people, strained government budgets, slackening economic growth, desires to have more women in the workforce, and also create more employment for young people. They invited me to reflect with them in a workshop.

The participants were well-to-do people by Indian standards, and well connected with Western ideas of modernity which they aspire to see in India and in their own lives. Older people should work longer said the participants in the workshop so that they can stand on their own feet. Warren Buffet is a role model, a participant exclaimed. “See how old he is and yet how much wealth he is continuing to make!”

Their solutions for feminine rights (and other global problems like climate change) are strongly influenced by ideas in developed countries. They too believe that women in India should have the right to work to earn, not knowing that India has more poor women in the workforce doing work like sweeping, cleaning, domestic work and childcare, that the rich will not do so that they can have freedom from domestic work and childcare to do whatever else they want to do in their lives. They will not pay these women workers enough so that the rich ones can have more money for whatever else they want to spend it on and improve their own living standards further.

The rich have aspirations for improving their lives; so do the poor. Their fundamental aspirations are different to ours we think. Because they are not “people like us”, or so we think. The woman in California and her nanny had more in common than they realized. Both wanted to care for their children. Both had needs to earn more, albeit to spend on different things.

Do we exploit the poor for our selfish purposes, while thinking that we are being kind to them? Are rich consumers in the US, and the businesses who cater to their demands for higher quality at lower prices, selfishly exploiting poor women workers in garment factories in Bangladesh and India? These were the moral questions in Sandel’s seminar.

Do old people need more monetary wealth or more social richness in their lives to add more life to the additional years that advanced medical care is giving them?

Business leaders, economists, and policy-makers seem to know a lot about how monetary wealth is created. What they must learn is how social wealth is preserved and created too.  

Redesigning economies to serve societies

Michael Sandel, the philosopher, who we met in Aspen before, says in his book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, that attempts to convert all transactions between people into exchanges of monetary value, which increase the size of the measured economy and its GDP, strip humans of their compassion. They drive people to choose what will increase incomes rather than the morally right thing to do.

The “what’s in it for me in monetary terms” syndrome has damaged corporate governance too. Evangelists of corporate “social responsibility” are obliged to prove that, if not in the short run, in the long run social responsibility will definitely increase shareholder value. The implication is that if it will not increase, or will decrease, the wealth of shareholders, it need not be done—even if it is the morally right thing to do.

Boards of corporations and their CEOs can be forgiven for thinking in this way when they take their decisions. Because the limited liability corporation is an institution created specifically to enable investors to increase their monetary wealth. Board members are legally required to be trustees of shareholders’ wealth, not trustees of society’s wealth.

Values of companies are computed by the shareholder wealth they create. Managers who produce more wealth for shareholders (and themselves) are celebrated. Worthiness of individuals is ranked by how much wealth they have. With such yardsticks of worthiness, should citizens be forgiven if, in their own lives, they put increase in their own wealth as a principal motivation for their decisions? And if they use “What’s in it for me?” as their test to evaluate their transactions and relationships with others?

The purpose of human lives is not to make economies larger; rather, the purpose of a good economy must be to improve human well-being. By exploiting the environment and other human beings, for increasing a corporations’ shareholders’ wealth, or our personal wealth, we destroy the sources of our own well-being. When we care for the natural environment, we preserve our natural capital. And when we care for others, we increase the social capital of our communities and our countries. In transactions of caring for others what’s in it for me is my own well-being.

The time has come to recouple the economy with society. A society should not be constructed to serve the economy and increase its size. The economy should be reformed to serve society and improve all-round human and ecological well-being.

We must look inside ourselves. What do we care about the most in our lives? The financial wealth we own? Or the love and care we receive and give?

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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