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Portfolio > Economy & Markets > Economic Trends

Star Trek Econ 201: Utopia, the Final Frontier

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I friend of mine emailed a quite lengthy response to my last blog, The Real-World Star Trek Would Be Far From Utopia. My story, and her comments, were about what kind of world we might expect to live in, should reality mirror the future of the TV show(s) in which technology enables humanity to instantly reconfigure matter to meet our very need, thus eliminating scarcity, and need to actually work for a living.

Here are what I take to be her most salient comments, along with a few follow-up thoughts of my own—and even a tie in to financial advice! 

“One of the issues I have with Economics,” she wrote, “is that it doesn’t really seem to work: I mean, look around! Where we are today is the direct result of economics, is it not? Yet we cling to the notion as it drowns us!”

First, I can only say: seriously? And yet I do think this is an important issue for financial advisors today—both because it seems to be a widely held view in our society and for what it says about the human condition.

As most of you know, “economics” is just a collection of observations and thoughts about “stuff.” Stuff is reality. We all need stuff to live: air, water, food, shelter, defense from predators (including each other), medicine, etc. Economics is about how we find, make, and get the stuff we need—and who gets how much of what.

As it turns out, there are a lot ways to do these things, and history suggests that some do work better than others.

This writer captures the common belief that our current economic system isn’t working very well. The reality is quite the opposite: In America today, and much of the world, we all have way, way, way, more stuff than any humans have had at any time in history: more food, shelter, clothing, medicine, information, education, etc. Even the poorest of us today have way more than the richest did just 200 years ago: live longer, know more, are more mobile, etc. A few years back, the University of Michigan economics department released a study that found the average person on welfare in this country today enjoys an economic lifestyle equal to someone in the middle class in 1965. And for the first time in recorded history, one of the biggest problems in America today—at every economic level—is obesity: which pretty much says it all.

How, then, is it that we collectively have come to believe just the opposite?  Some of it may be the media’s penchant for selling crises, but I suspect the real problem is deeper than that. As a culture, we seem to have the mass belief that the key to happiness is having more stuff. But as mountains of research has shown (and like many older folks, I’ve come to realize), happiness doesn’t come from having more stuff. Sure, we might be happier for a little while, but then we just go back to being unhappy that we don’t have even more stuff.

As I wrote in my July column in Investment Advisor, Endorphinomics: Working on Happiness, in his new book “Endorphonomics,” Steve Moeller cited a University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center report. It found that since 1957, the purchasing power of Americans nearly tripled, from about $12,000 a year to about $33,000 in 2011 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). However, during that same period, “the percentage of people responding that they were ‘very happy’ declined from 35% to 29%.” More stuff, less happiness.

As for the Star Trek economic model, I suspect a “replicator” (the device that can create any physical item we want, anytime we want it, out of pure energy) would only fuel this misplaced desire: taking us to new heights of excess and greed. We don’t need to get more stuff: we need to change the way we view ourselves, and the world around us. That’s where the real “utopia” lies. 

Back in 1996, Denver financial planner Jim Schwartz, one of the founders of NAPFA, said as much in his book, aptly titled: “Enough.” In it, he suggests that a financial planner’s job is not to fuel his/her clients’ drive for ever-larger portfolios. Rather, planners can help clients reach a higher level of happiness by working with them to understand what they need to be truly happy, and to focus on attaining that, and no more.

Schwartz’s vision seems more important today than ever—and the good news is that advisors don’t need a “replicator” or a starship to reach it.


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