Limits To Growth/Simply Priceless

Many Harvard University graduates earn annual salaries of $100,000 or more.[1] Harvard graduate John Fetterman holds two jobs and earns only about $30,000. What is going on here? Is he some slacker, or can we learn important lessons from him?

John Fetterman - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME 2.jpg
Harvard graduate John Fetterman holds two jobs and earns only about $30,000.

American mass media fuels our anxiety and consternation with incessant reports of slow growth in the economy, high unemployment, an obesity epidemic, a steady rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, and cancer, and general levels of stress and discontent. Perhaps it is time for more of us to examine the worldview behind these problem statements.

When people talk about economic growth or the strength of the economy, they are often talking about the rate of growth of the gross domestic product (GDP). The GDP is a primary measure of a country's overall economic output. It is the market value of all final goods and services made within the borders of a country in a year. For example, the GDP includes:

  • The costs associated with growing, harvesting, transporting, storing, and processing tobacco.
  • The costs of manufacturing, distributing, advertising, and retailing cigarettes and cigars.
  • The costs of doctor’s visits, medications, hospitalizations, and chronic care treatment for smoker’s cough, emphysema, and lung cancer.
  • The costs of FDA tobacco regulations and tobacco-related law enforcement costs.
  • Tobacco-related litigation costs,
  • The costs of advertising health warnings.
  • The costs of anti smoking campaigns and stop smoking programs and products.

Each of these activities actually helps to grow the economy and create jobs even as they contribute to the misery of the unfortunate tobacco addict. Wouldn’t a leisurely hike with friends through the woods ending with a spectacular view of a beautiful sunset be a better way to spend time? But enjoying the splendor of sunsets does not help to grow our economy while dying a painful death from lung cancer does.

An emphasis on more, including increasing the GDP, growing the economy, and a relentless focus on increasing stock prices has brought us: the subprime mortgage crisis, housing foreclosures, Enron and other accounting scandals, wars, hydrogen bombs and other nuclear weapons, the Holocaust and other acts of genocide, slavery, traffic jams, urban sprawl, the bridge to nowhere, wide-spread cheating, Vioxx and other dangerous prescription drugs, Twinkies, obesity, stress, anxiety, class struggles, pollution, paparazzi, deforestation, strip mining, overfishing, drought, failed states, global warming, and other waste, violence, destruction, and misery. We have become consumed.

In 2001 John Fetterman chose work for AmeriCorps and move to Braddock Pennsylvania, one of the most devastated cities in the country. It is a mix of burned out or boarded-up storefronts, collapsing houses, and more than 1,000 vacant lots. Pennsylvania has consistently classified Braddock a “distressed municipality”—essentially bankrupt—since the 1980s. Here Fetterman started, and still directs, a program helping the dislocated youth of Braddock and the surrounding communities to earn their GED, get jobs, and receive needed social support and intervention.

Fetterman calls Braddock “home” and is committed to living there for the foreseeable future. He has the Braddock zip code, 15104, tattooed to his forearm. In 2005 he was elected Mayor. He and his wife purchased an abandoned warehouse in the city for $2,000 and converted it into their first and only home. They are living there now and raising their young son. He was elected to his second term as Mayor in 2009, and is paid $150 per month for that grueling job. He also keeps his day job, still helping the city youth.

What if more of us had the wisdom to shift our focus to what is truly most meaningful in life? What if we decided we had enough of the old thinking and decided to value: peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, clean air, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, awe, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, joyful play, meaningful work, authentic experiences, reciprocity, respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education and learning, deeper understanding and appreciation, fun, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others. We can enjoy what is already available to us.

Adam Smith never imagined how greedy the invisible hand would become. It is time to change our focus from economic growth to growth in human well-being.

The relationship between money and happiness is complex. The basic economic assumption that well-being increases with income is being challenged. A 1997 World Development Report shows that happiness increases with income until per capita GDP reaches a level around $15,000 per person at which point happiness levels off and does not appreciably increase as income increases. Another study showed people's day-to-day emotional well-being only rose with earnings up to an annual income threshold of $75,000. Increasing average income brings diminishing returns of happiness, but not less happiness. Also, peoples’ quality of life and longevity is affected by relative rather than absolute income.

At six feet eight inches tall and weighing 370 pounds, Mayor Fetterman is truly a gentle and courageous giant of a man. He is informed, realistic, optimistic, and humble. As an AmeriCorp member he pledged:

“…Faced with apathy, I will take action. Faced with conflict, I will seek common ground. Faced with adversity I will persevere…”

He is keeping his pledge, he is taking bold and creative action, and he is making a real difference.

He is slowly transforming the city. There is no grocery store in the community so the Mayor began an urban farming program that provides the residents with low-cost fresh produce as it provides job opportunities for area youth. He has opened the playgrounds and basketball courts and created summer jobs for youth. He is working to attract artists to occupy the low-cost loft space available in the city because he believes artists can often see opportunity where others do not. He started a nonprofit organization to save a handful of properties.

John Fetterman is committed and contented. He is making excellent use of his Master’s Degree in public policy and economics from Harvard; he is a happy man.

Perhaps more of us can turn our attention away from narrow indicators of economic growth and focus on the broader pursuit of happiness. We can learn to cope better with abundance. It certainly seems like a wiser path.


  1. This essay first appeared as a blog post on theycallmelee.blogspot. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: