It’s Arrival week on the blog, and Katherine Trebeck and I are looking at some key themes from our book The Economics of Arrival. So far we have introduced the two central messages of Arrival and making ourselves at home (our dual concepts in the book), and a key theme of failure demand and uneconomic growth. But if growth is an inadequate goal for GDP-rich countries, what should they be pursuing instead?
It’s important to underline the fact that growth still matters in our thinking. Growth makes Arrival possible, but context is everything. Wherever people don’t have enough for a good standard of living, growth can be vital – as long as it’s shared and put to good use. But once diminishing marginal returns set in, it’s not clear what more growth is for. Its work is done.
We use a variety of metaphors for this in the book. We talk about the economy being grown up, like a mature tree reaching its full and rightful size. We talk about building a house, and how growth is like the bricks and concrete that provides the structure of the house, but not the warmth and welcome of the home. In the same way, we rely on growth at the earlier stages of development to provide the resources, income, infrastructure and materials to provide a good life for everyone. Growth gives us the foundations on which to build a lasting home – but you don’t live in the foundations.
What comes afterwards is going to be a more qualitative form of progress, and the book explores a number of different avenues for progress after growth. Here are some of them (and in our book we give some examples of where they are already in existence):
Predistribution: progressive governments can find themselves spending a lot of energy trying to fix inequality through redistribution. They have to capture a share of wealth through taxes, and then pass it on to those on lower incomes through services and benefits. It’s bureaucratic, often divisive, and it would be a whole lot easier if the economy didn’t create the inequality in the first place. The alternative is sometimes called ‘predistribution’, and it’s an important theme for us. We advocate a more inclusive economy from the start, by using employee owned businesses, community energy, local transport coops and so on, so that more people have a stake in the economy and it becomes more democratic.
Participative democracy: a feeling of agency is important to human mental health. Feeling powerless and out of control is detrimental to our wellbeing, and so reinvigorating democracy would be a good way to improve people’s lives. It might also help to prevent the slow slide towards extremism that we see in a number of countries. People feel that they aren’t listened to, that politicians don’t have their interests at heart. Through participative budgeting, auditing or planning, people would feel that they have a voice as well as a vote.
Leisure time: In the 1950s it was often assumed that the technological breakthroughs would replace a lot of human labour. People would work a three day week and spend their time on leisure, art, sport or volunteering. It hasn’t worked out that way, but the option is still there. Many people reach a point in their career where they realise that an extra day off would be worth more to them than a pay rise, and they go part time. What if we had a national version of that, and chose to enjoy our wealth as time rather than production? It would need to be done in a way that didn’t force anyone, or leave anyone poorer, but the benefits to our health, happiness and freedom would be considerable.
Good work: many employed people spend a big chunk their waking lives at work, so whether or not you enjoy your job really impacts overall sense of personal wellbeing. And unfortunately, 60% of people in Britain and America report that they are unhappy at work. Hours are long and the work may be unrewarding, or meaningless. More leisure time would help – see above – but there have to be ways to make work itself better too. There is plenty of research that shows that people are more engaged in employee-owned businesses. They feel that they are valued and have a stake, and so we talk a lot in the book about alternative business models that would deliver good work, ‘pre-distribute’ wealth and address inequality.
Those are just a few examples. We could also look at the circular economy, public affluence, commons thinking, a deeper materialism that values what we own through repair and craft, or how consumerism could be supplanted by a more healthy ‘experientialism’. The end of growth doesn’t mean a mediocre stasis maintained in perpetuity. There will be new technologies, new ideas, new art and culture, and many new ways to improve people’s lives and regenerate the environment.
- Feature image by Saad Salim