On April 10, 2019, I had my first religious experience. On that date, NASA revealed the first image of a black hole. It was an image of the supermassive black hole M87, which is billions of times larger than our sun. I had a startling thought: how could something with so much mass not be alive in some way? It was my first step into thinking about the universe as one giant organism, with humans being the galactic equivalent of the helpful microbes which exist in our stomachs.
Since then I’ve tried on a few different philosophical cloaks, dabbling in absurdism and anarchy to reference a few. But I think those were reactions to the circumstances of the pandemic. The further I get away from the unique stresses of the pandemic, the less certain I am about them as ideas. But the sense that all things in the universe are connected as one, with innumerable consciousnesses of all types feeding information and experience into the whole, has only grown.
I was contemplating this idea recently when I took another step down the path. My absurdist, chauvinistic interpretation of the universe suggested that ideas like love, hate, kindness, and humor only existed as long as humans did because we gave name and form to those experiences. Yet I realized suddenly that happiness does exist independent of humans. After all, nonhuman animals experience a range of emotions despite their inability to name them. So then, where do these values come from? They must come from the universe itself, just as we do.
Okay, cool. So what does any of this have to do with politics?
The connection is that politics is primarily driven by values. I know it’s popular to think of politicians and government officials as cynical operators who discard their convictions as soon as the wind blows a different way. Yet that perception of cynicism is often a projection, and I’ve been guilty of it as well. Our politicians sincerely tell us their values all the time. Literally, they stand in front of television cameras and talk all the time.
After spending nearly 40 years listening to politicians of all ages, races, genders and political parties talk (I can still remember eating dinner and watching the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw), the value that I’ve heard the most is economic growth. Of course they talk about other things, but the economy is what they talk about the most. Political success is most often measured in terms of GDP, the stock market and the unemployment rate. As a result, the United States ranks near the top of pretty much every global economic and financial ranking. Even Connecticut by itself has a GDP comparable to Pakistan.
But there are other ways to measure the success of a nation and its people. When measured by health, the United States is 35th. Our medicine is also the most expensive in the world. When measured by access to clean drinking water, we’re 26th. And when it comes to happiness, the US sits at 15th.
These lists are definitely not perfect, but even within their Eurocentric focus, the United States still places lower than its counterparts. This is not a result of a lack of resources or knowledge. It’s the result of our political priorities. It’s a reflection of the values that drive policy and decision-making.
Maybe calling this value “the economy” is too clinical, because what it’s really about is survival. People work to earn money to eat and have a home. But the drive for survival has also morphed into avarice and selfishness, as we see many who struggle to survive at the same time that others hoard more than they could use in a hundred lifetimes. It’s not crazy that those values have such an outsized impact on our political process. But it’s also not inevitable.
Love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and mercy are all values that find their roots deep in the very fabric of our existence. They are legitimate foundations for policy and governance. Imagine how different things would be if the next domestic initiative announced at the State of the Union was to place the United States at the top of the Happiness Index, or any other measure instead. It would require us to determine our own values and then work to see them truly reflected in leadership. I think the universe would be pretty cool with that.