democracy equality

What does progress look like after growth?

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 community planning, Tanzania

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.

Farmers for the employee owned Riverford Organic

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.

8 comments

  1. I think you outline the world you wish to live in, not the world that many others really want.

    For example participative democracy sounds good if public policy interests you and you want to make sure things run how you want them. But it also sounds like endless hours of meetings full of boring and unpleasant cranks and zealots to the vast majority who want to enjoy their lives. Auditing and budgeting will always be very much a minority interest. In fact it could end up less reflective of public opinion. Given that it’ll get run by the zealots and cranks they won’t want normal people with their pedestrian views involved. Decisions will be taken by the few interested people shaped by their priorities. Accountability would be nebulous ( how do I vote them out when decisions are supposedly made by everyone). When normal people who are effected by the decisions come to complain the meetings will be made long and by turns boring and thuggish to drive them away. It’ll be like a Far Left Momentum meeting or a union one from the 1970s.

      1. Fortunately in the UK we don’t use it very much. I’ve been bored in student meetings that were rigged to ensure important things were decided only at the bitter end and I have my father in laws’s stories of unions in the 1970s.

        But then you don’t need experience to be able to evaluate evidence and form an opinion. You haven’t experienced everything you write about have you.

        What safeguards do you see to stop the obvious potential for abuse in those systems?

  2. Well then I invite you to consider the evidence of participative budgeting in Brazil and community auditing in Nepal that we present in the book. It’s all evidence based. Or Iceland’s crowdsourced constitution or Ireland’s citizens assemblies. There are ways to do things badly of course, but there are all sorts of ways of using participative democracy well. We have a participative budgeting scheme in Luton that I’ve taken part in myself. If you don’t want to take part, nobody will force you – and the decisions about your life can be taken by others, that’s your prerogative.

    Strange that you think ‘the world I wish to live in’ is going to boring meetings. Never heard of anyone who aspires to that.

  3. What if I don’t want people who I haven’t had a hand in choosing make decisions for me AND I don’t want to spend my family time on participating in something that doesn’t interest me?

    You forget Brenda from Bristol. Most people want to vote once every 4-5 years and get on with their lives. I mean, what percentage of the population of Luton took part in the participatory budgeting?

    As a method of deciding on a few non essentials it’s fine but anything serious it would be far less democratic and representative than our current system.

  4. I don’t know what percentage of Luton people take part in our own process. I imagine it’s fairly small, but of those that do it’s a vibrant discussion around what we want for our local area. It’s responsive and it allows citizens to take initiative. There are far more comprehensive schemes that run in Newcastle or in New York, very succesfully, with much bigger budgets. Where these are done well, there is plenty of engagement and it turns out that many people actually do want more of a voice than ticking a box every five years.

    I was in Bristol this weekend. I didn’t meet Brenda, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for her. There’s far too much presuming what people want without actually asking them, in my opinion.

    If you want a vote, but no voice beyond that, that’s your prerogative.

    1. It tickles me that you suggest I presume Brenda”s views but you’re presuming that people want this and your steady state economy. Whole lot of presumption going on every which way.

      It’s rational ignorance not to be interested in political going ons. For most people the time spent far outweighs the benefits. Public Choice Theory.

  5. How do we know what people want if there’s no way to ask them? That’s all these processes are – finding out what people want and not presuming that we know best.

    If a town runs a properly organised participative process and nobody turns up, fair enough. But there are plenty of examples of successful projects that show people do want to engage with it. There are far more stories, in every town up and down the country, where communities feel left out of important decisions that affect them. I could name you a dozen in Luton alone, from airport expansion to library closures to building on green spaces. There’s a huge opportunity for using community planning, auditing and budgeting to give people a voice.

    I’m an active participant in these things myself. I’m volunteering with an extensive consultation on a new community enterprise at the moment. Everything works better when people feel things are done with them and for them, not done to them. So you can quote theories at me, but you honestly don’t know what you’re talking about.

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