More Than Money
Issue #27

Lifestyles of the Rich and Simple

Table of Contents

“Why Time is Not Money”

by Wayne Muller

The following excerpt is from SABBATH by Wayne Muller. Copyright © 1999 by Wayne Muller. Used by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see Internet website at http://www.randomhouse.com .

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
They neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you
That even Solomon in all his glory
Was not arrayed as one of these.
-- MATTHEW 6:28-29

During World War II, Britain was desperate to find a way to keep track of the resources necessary to fight the war. Economists developed a method whereby they could record and combine the value of all goods and services bought and sold each year, and use this figure to calculate the overall wealth of the nation.

With the war finally over, the newly formed United Nations decided the British model would be a useful tool for understanding and comparing the relative wealth of the nations of the world. If the number of goods and services bought and sold increased, it would indicate a solid, robust economy. If they found there was a decrease in the manufacture, production, and sale of goods, it would indicate the strength of the nation was in decline. An expanding economy was seen as a good and necessary thing for the healthy survival of the country; a declining economy was an alarming indicator that the nation's well-being was in danger. The U.N. urged its members to adopt this method as the worldwide standard, and today, all countries use this measurement--called the Gross Domestic Product, or G.D.P.--to calculate their nation's wealth.

At first glance, this simple accounting method seems a useful, reasonable and relatively neutral tool. Upon closer inspection, however, we quickly see it is both astonishingly myopic, and insidiously dangerous--even violent--in its application. For when wealth is measured only in terms of goods and services bought and sold, only those actions involving money are seen as good and useful. Anything done in time is seen as useless.

Consider a woman in Somalia who rises early to walk two miles to the nearest well to get water for her family, returns to feed her children and ready them for school, spends the morning working the soil of the family garden, the afternoon tending to the sick and infirm of her village, then in the evening cooks and mends clothing and sings songs to her tired children and makes love with her husband. As measured by the G.D.P., this woman has no value. She is useless; a drain on the nation's wealth.

Now let us look at her cousin, who was lucky enough to go to military school and become a soldier. As a government-employed pilot, let us say he is ordered to bomb a mountain enclave deemed sympathetic to some rebel cause. In this case, a great deal of money must be spent to bury all the dead men, women, and children, to rebuild the destroyed buildings, to pay soldiers to police the area, fly in emergency personnel, hire extra doctors, and recruit foreign aid--not to mention the money needed for fuel, bombs, and military aircraft. By murdering innocent children, our young pilot has done a very good thing; he has provided an enthusiastic boost to the economy. The woman who draws water and tends the sick and feeds the children has, according to our official measurement of growth and wealth, provided nothing at all. At the end of the day, it is the pilot, not the mother, who will get the medal for service to the nation.

This horrific paradox is the very foundation of the world's official economic policy. It is repeated a billion times a day, everywhere on earth. Actions performed with love are dismissed, while actions performed with money are honored and rewarded.

What is the true measure of the wealth of a people? The creation and preservation of beauty? A strong and healthy citizenry? An educated and compassionate leadership, ensuring justice for all? A palpable sense of civic joy? A collective sense that serving our neighbor is our highest civic good? Sadly, none of these rises to the top of our list. By current standards, the Holy Grail on the altar of civilization is the health of the economy, measured by the G.D.P. Economic growth is the measure of a life well lived, a nation well run, a civilization well built.

Medical science has a very specific name to describe unrestricted cell growth in the human body: cancer. Just as undifferentiated cell growth is medically toxic, so is unrestricted economic growth ethically toxic. When we measure only the manufacture and sale of goods and services--regardless of the uses to which those goods are put, and regardless of the quality of the days and lives of the people using them--we create an economy unintentionally skewed toward military expansion, war, destruction, and other profitable and expensive endeavors. Waste, stupidity, and evil all cost money, and are, by extension, economic goods; each feeds the machine of growth.

Today we are relearning to assign economic value to parks, endangered species, air and water quality, and even solitude and sunsets. We estimate the ratio of benefits to costs when we build roads and parks and reservoirs. But these "nonmarket" values are not reflected in overall measures of the national wealth. In fact, G.D.P. rises if we replace a park with a factory, and it rises even more if the factory happens to pollute the environment. Paying for the cleanup adds yet another monetary benefit to our total.

What have we done? How have we so disordered the value and meaning of human endeavor? My friends Ben and Carolyn visit the New Mexico State Penitentiary on Sunday evenings, where they lead a Bible study and discussion among the inmates about their lives, their decisions, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. It is a rich and fertile communion, punctuated with prayer and reflection, yet in the eyes of the G.D.P. it is waste of time. How then do we understand the value of such a ministry?

And what of Pat and Dottie and the other parents in Espanola, New Mexico, who volunteered countless hours, and the teachers who taught for free, all to create an after-school gymnastics program so the children would have positive experiences, time with their parents, and learn physical and emotional confidence? What of my friend Cora, who serves meals to the homeless? Or Cornelia, who loves to weave, and who donates her looms and her time to teach this disappearing art to young women in northern New Mexico? What of Max and David Cordova, who last winter organized a drive to provide firewood for poor families, out of the simple motivation that it needed to be done? How do we value these simple acts of kindness? This is what the official statistics will show: Nothing. Nothing noteworthy, nothing of any value was achieved through these actions.

Yet every time someone gets cancer, the G.D.P. goes up. Every time an infant dies, the G.D.P. rises. A drive-by shooting improves the economy by $20,750. If the victim dies, and there is a murder trial, the benefit to the economy leaps to well over $100,000. An oil tanker spill can contribute between five and twenty million dollars of "growth"; the benefits of an airline crash or terrorist bombing can be far greater. And consider the value gained from trade with countries our own State Department has cited for torturing their citizens. In 1995 alone, this boon added an estimated $400 billion to our national worth. And so it goes: Land mines, civil wars, church burnings -- each provides a boost to our bountiful economy.

In short, we have converted destruction into an economic good. But anything that grows without money changing hands--parents who care for their children, people who voluntarily care for the sick, the dying, or the homeless, people who pray or meditate or walk in the woods--these, at best, have no value. At worst, they take away precious time and energy that could be used to grow the G.D.P.

Who would make such choices consciously? Yet they have become part of our collective belief system, encoded everywhere, and we cannot help but participate in a society governed by these preferences.

My friend Janie was visiting the home of an old potter at Santa Clara pueblo. She was admiring the enormous collections of pots her host had on display throughout his home. "How many do you have?" my friend innocently inquired. Her host lowered his eyes. "We do not count such things," he replied quietly.

During Sabbath we stop counting. How do we count friendship or laughter? How do we count the value of honesty or bread from the oven? How can we count the sunrise, the trusting clasp of a child's hand, a melody, a tear, a lover's touch? So many truly precious things grow only in the soil of time; and we can only begin to know their value when we stop counting.

During Sabbath, things that grow in time are honored at least as much as those things we would buy and sell. At rest, we can take deeper measure of our true wealth. If we do not rest, if we do not taste and eat and serve and teach and pray and give thanks and do all those things that grow only in time, we will become more impoverished than we will ever know.

To learn about the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product, visit http://www.rprogress.org .