The Real Wealth of Nations

"Why when we humans have such a great capacity for caring, consciousness and creativity, has our world seen so much cruelty, insensitivity and destructiveness?"

- The Real Wealth of Nations, page 1

Are we doing good or, doing harm without even realizing it? The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics by Riane Tennenhaus Eisler will throw all of us good citizens for a loop as it describes what we think of as “business (life) as usual”. In it’s graphic and well researched examples we see the consequences to human life for our economic actions.

Eisler proposes nothing less than a complete change to all our present systems if future generations are to survive. It’s economics that are creating global warming, economics creating families trying to find time for each other, economics creating crime, hunger, extreme poverty.

In my management consulting language she’s telling us we have to blow it up and start again!  Putting caring and economics in the same phrase is super unconventional but at this point there is no softer alternative.

In order to help us understand what got us here and how to “blow it up”, the book applies evolutionary systems science to social science and walks us through these new standards/rules for what must be seen as economically valuable:

1. The life supporting activities of households, communities and nature
2. Cultural beliefs and institutions that value caring
3. Caring economic rules, polices and practices
4. Inclusive and accurate economic indicators
5. Economic and social structures that support partnership rather than domination


The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Mutual benefit, mutual caring, mutual accountability

"…we can’t change economic systems by just focusing on economics."
- The Real Wealth of Nations, page 93

The major premise leading us to “wealth” is acting for the good of all which Eilser has labeled Partnership (vs Dominance). Her Core Components of a culture of partnership says it all. We must have:

1. A democratic and equalitarian structure in the family first and then society at large (a huge, huge point and a departure for the “business as usual” — start with family in order to affect society — she’s saying that it truly is up to us).
2. Cultural “unacceptance” of abuse and violence as this leads to trust and mutual respect.
3. Equal partnership between men and women.
4. Beliefs and stories that offer a more positive view of human nature.

The book gives riveting stories of several cultures that embody the Core Components of Partnership vs Dominance. A couple of her examples are tribes in underdeveloped countries which must have led a large number of people to cry foul — it’s easy to do this in the middle of nowhere in poverty.  So she gives detailed descriptions of Nordic countries who are living these behaviors and doing really well because of it (see insight #1 and #2 for examples).

It’s impossible to read this book without at the least assessing my own life and business if not starting to make changes to my everyday actions. I truly believe in all 4 Core Components but the more I read the more it became clear how many activities I do that don’t support them. I was particularly taken by examples of child rearing that aren’t as partnering as needed to raise children who’ll further Partnership.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

A Redefinition of Productivity

"The real wealth of nations consists of the contributions of people and our natural environment."
- The Real Wealth of Nations, page 3

I knew I was attracted to this title — and now I know why. I love Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations specifically because it is a technical treatise.  This book on the other hand is emotional, and requires you to make decisions and take new and hard actions. Redefining productivity in this world requires us to make caring and care giving hard and fast values — technical values.

As taxpayers we educate soldiers, pay them and give them large pensions to fight for our nations but we don’t reward parents for raising children (or even educate them on how to do this). What makes fighting for a country worth more than bringing up children to live as partnering citizens?  I don’t think people think it is worth more. I think we just haven’t thought it through the way The Real Wealth of Nations has.

Our assumptions about productivity are based on an industrial society — one that is no longer the primary driver of productivity. So we need to change to one based on human capital. People have been talking about this for decades, including the value of caring and caregiving but the talk hasn’t translated to widespread policies and actions. Eleven years ago I got a call from my editor at John Wiley & Sons wanting to do a book on how companies can make more money doing good (“Doing Good is Good Business”) but it never went anywhere.

Studies, observation and business indicators show that problem solving, creativity and entrepreneurship are supported by caring policies and practices and that leads to better communication, greater competence and successful collaboration.

And you’re thinking what can I do, I’m not a nation.  What things can you do to:

  • Care about your employees?

  • Care about the environment?

  • Care about your government?

  • Care about your neighbors?

  • Care about other businesses?

I realized my desire to buy local but lack of doing it was based on a faulty definition of productivity — my own.  Buying local costs more most of the time and I felt I shouldn’t spend the money.  I will step up my local buying now that I allowed myself to see the cost benefit in the long run.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Substitute a culture of caring for a culture of dominance

"By the grace of evolution we humans are equipped with a neurochemistry that gives us pleasure when we care for others."
- The Real Wealth of Nations, page 189

An experiment was done with children aged 18 months to see if even at this early age they exhibited  empathy and altruism.  They weren’t offered any reward, but simply were in a room with an adult they knew who dropped clothespins by accident. In each case the toddler walked over to pick them up.

And there’s plenty more research just like it until you add in culture — then you get parents in Southeast Asia selling their young daughter into sex slavery to pay for their son’s schooling and to avoid a dowry.  While horrific sounding to me this seems reasonable to others belonging to that culture since it is one of child brides and young girls not being valued.

Neuroscience shows severe or chronic stress inhibits the capacity for empathy as well as capacity for perceiving options and making reasoned choices and stress makes it hard to be conscious of others.

In a culture of Dominance versus one of Partnership/Caring, we get inadequacy (people always have more than we do) hunger, scarcity and violence because of the stress and the feeling that we have no ability to change it. People can and do change but we must be exposed to new beliefs in order to know they even exist.

Eisler gives descriptions of many movements toward caring (social entrepreneurs, fairness and accuracy of reporting, lending programs to companies with caring practices, etc) so we know something is being done. She says we need new stories (not those of Shakespeare, Homer and Kings) about human nature to replace the dominant stories with ones of partnership.  It is our responsibility to tell the stories Eisler gives us!

I’m not sure what I thought the book was going to be about but it sure wasn’t this.  Very surprising — and that’s the mark of a good book. My sense of the misdeeds of humans in this world is only heightened but I’m happily left with the knowledge that there’s a lot I can do. First and foremost we must all free ourselves from the dominator trance that has led good people to take what we thought were good actions — until we now see the consequences.

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Carolyn B. Thompson

ABOUT Carolyn B. Thompson

I’m proud to be a Renaissance Man – dog mom, singer, water skier, Christian, gardener, trainer, business owner, cook, baker, swimmer, reader, crafts, Christmas decorator, vegetable lover who eats fish & meat, mocha drinker, iced tea drinker, believer that chocolate desserts are a major food group, walker/runner, exerciser, movie watcher, writer, former work road warrior mainly to do conference keynotes & bookstores, 3 children in their mid-30s w/5 grandchildren under 6 yrs old.
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