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Published on Monday, February 25, 2013 by Common Dreams
A Better Plan Than ‘Endless Growth’: Enough Is Enough
by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill
The World Economic Forum held its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland last month. The official theme was “Resilient Dynamism,” a catchphrase that makes about as much sense as the futureless economic policies trotted out at the meeting. At least the attendees had something to ponder at cocktail hour. The mission of the forum, on paper at least, is “improving the state of the world.” And there is clear room for improvement: trillions of dollars of public debt, billions of people living in poverty, escalating unemployment, and a distinct possibility of runaway climate change.
The popular solution to these problems is sustained economic growth. In fact, the first item of the Davos meeting’s global agenda was “how to get the global economy back on to a path of stable growth and higher employment” The thinking is that if we could just get people to produce and consume more stuff, then we could also pay off the debt, create jobs, eradicate poverty, and maybe even have some money left over to clean up the environment.
It’s tempting to believe this economic fairy tale. But if growth is the cure to all of our ills, why are we in such a bind after sixty years of it? Even though the U.S. economy has more than tripled in size since 1950, surveys indicate that people have not become any happier. Inequality has risen sharply in recent years, and jobs are far from secure. At the same time, increased economic activity has led to greater resource use, dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and declining biodiversity. There is now strong evidence that economic growth has become uneconomic in the sense that it costs more than it’s worth.
Maybe it’s time to consider a new strategy—an economy of enough. Suppose that instead of chasing after more stuff, more jobs, more consumption, and more income, we aimed for enough stuff, enough jobs, enough consumption, and enough income.
To build a successful economy of enough, we would first need to eliminate the “growth imperative”—factors that make the economy reliant on growth. These include reliance on inappropriate measures of progress, creation of debt-based money, and the use of aggregate growth as a tool (albeit a blunt one) for generating jobs. With key policy changes, it is possible to dismantle the growth imperative and build an economy that works for people and the planet.
Let’s start with measures of progress. Our main economic indicator, GDP, is a good measure of economic activity—of money changing hands—but a poor measure of social welfare. It lumps together desirable expenditures (food, entertainment, and investment in education) with expenditures that we’d rather avoid (war, pollution, and family breakdown). In the language of economics, GDP does not distinguish between costs and benefits, but counts all economic activity as “progress.”
Instead of GDP, we need indicators that measure the things that matter to people, such as health, happiness, and meaningful employment. We also need indicators that measure what matters to the planet, such as material use and carbon emissions. In fact, we already have these indicators; the problem is that we largely ignore them, because we are so fixated on GDP. If the goal of society could be changed from increasing GDP to improving human well-being and preventing long-term environmental damage, then many proposals currently seen as “impossible” would suddenly become possible.
What about jobs? If we forgot about GDP, would the economy spiral into recession? The evidence for a relationship between economic growth and job creation is much weaker than you might expect and varies remarkably between countries. In the U.S., for example, a 3 percent increase in GDP tends to be accompanied by a 1 percent fall in unemployment. In France, the same amount of GDP growth reduces unemployment by about half a percent. In Japan, there is no relationship whatsoever. Clearly it is possible to break the connection between economic growth and unemployment. We just need the right economic policies.
If the goal of society could be changed from increasing GDP to improving human well-being and preventing long-term environmental damage, then many proposals currently seen as “impossible” would suddenly become possible.
One of these policies is work-time reduction. Over time, we have become more efficient at producing goods and services, such that it now takes us less time to produce the same amount of stuff as it did a few decades ago. But instead of using the benefits of technological progress to reduce working time, we have mainly used them to produce and sell more stuff. This may work in an economy where the goal is more (i.e., continuous growth), but not in one where the goal is enough. What we can do instead is use the benefits of technological progress to gradually shorten the working day, week, year, and career. Besides increasing leisure time, this would help keep people employed by distributing available work more equally.
Finally, there’s the financial system. Most people don’t realize it, but nearly all of our money is created by private banks. Banks are able to create money because they can issue loans far in excess of their deposits. This debt-based monetary system drives three things: (1) economic growth, as the need to pay back an ever-increasing amount of debt requires an ever-increasing amount of economic activity, (2) inflation, as the money supply tends to grow faster than the amount of real wealth that’s available in the economy, and (3) instability, because if the banks stop lending, the whole house of cards collapses. If we want to take a stab at the heart of the growth imperative, and also prevent future financial crises, the answer is simple: stop banks from creating money out of thin air, and transfer this power to a public authority.
It’s hard to believe that many folks in Davos (or anywhere else, for that matter) came away with a clear understanding of what “Resilient Dynamism” means. But one thing is certain: an economy founded on perpetual growth has no shot at being resilient. Maybe we could classify such an economy as dynamic, since it will continue to displace people and communities and erode the life-support systems of the planet. While the economic elites interpret “Resilient Dynamism” to fit their agenda, perhaps the rest of us should employ some plain language and let them know that enough is enough.
Rob Dietz is the editor of the Daly News, former executive director of CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy), and co-author (with Dan O’Neill) of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.
Dan O’Neill is a lecturer in ecological economics at the University of Leeds and the chief economist for CASSE (the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy). He is the co-author (with Rob Dietz) of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources.
Business: “Why should I join?”
Business: Anna, I still don’t “get it”. Why should I join the Adirondack Cooperative Economy? What’s in it for me?
A: Well, think of it this way. You see our economic situation. There is not enough money to go around so people are concentrating on buying what they need with the little money that they have: food, gas to get to work, heating in the winter, utilities, rent or mortgages.
B: What about clothes?
A: Nope. You can get clothes for nothing these days. So people go to Walmart or Price Chopper. They use the car (gas) once and get everything cheaply at one time. For $100 worth of groceries they even get a dollar off on their $35 gasoline bill at Sunoco. They would love to buy local, organic, go to the naturopath, get a massage, that great smelling home made soap – but can’t.
B: OKA: So give your customers a way to create extra buying power. Show them how to turn their extra time, skills, an unused bedroom, a trip they could share, some stuff collecting dust in the attic, into money – ADK Bucks. They could offer to feed the cats next door when their neighbors go on vacation. Cats HATE to be boarded. Or what about that old lady that needs a ride to the dentist? This can be turned into valuable “credits”
You, on the other hand have a surplus. As a farmer you throw away (sorry, compost) a lot of produce at the end of a market. Your inventory of wonderful wooden products collects dust in the wintertime.B: Yes, I agree that we all have too much. We have bought too much.A: So bring the two together. Allow your customers to pay all or part of their purchases with ADK Bucks or Online Credits. You get more business. And with those credits you can buy what you need from other businesses – a car repair, some firewood, one of those luscious home grown chickens or eggs next door, So you have more US$ left over for what you need.B. And then this can snowball?A: yes…
B: Am I being too optimistic?
A: No, not at all. But…it means people signing up so all of this will work. The more people involved the better the benefit for everyone.The reason the US$ works is because everyone accepts it. But it is based on debt and interest. Most people dont know this but money is created by someone taking out a loan – at interest. This is what individual people and whole nations do. The principal of the loan goes into circulation but there is never any money to pay off the interest. So what happens? People have to start competing for the money. Its like rats in a shrinking cage – thats what we are.
Our complementary currency, however is interest free. You also have an interest free line of credit. So, if you are a farmer you take in money in the summer or sell your products to tourists when they are here. But in the winter your money gets low. You may need to get more firewood, repair your tractor, buy seeds, repair the greenhouse…whatever. You can use the credits you have accumulated and go into minus, interest free, making the promise to the community that you will be back with your products in the new season.
B: Anna, thanks so much. You know you have been coming here for 8 weeks, talking to me. This is the first time “I get it”
Since this is a Blog, conversation is important. I thought I would “begin the conversation” with a correspondence I had with a woman in Troy involved with the Transition Town Movement down there. She is interested in economics and had some excellent questions. The answers clarify what we are doing. Please keep questions coming. You can also write to AdirondackRegionalCurrency@aol.com
Anna (A): Hi E., Lisa Adamson gave me your name and said you are involved with the Transition Town Movement in Troy and also interested in currency. You seem to be doing great things down there. You can follow what we are doing on Facebook:
E: Thanks so much for your note. I checked out your facebook page. Looks really cool. A question that the website didn’t seem to answer: How exactly are Credits issued?
A: That is a good question. If you are involved with the Time Bank I assume you use the system of time credits. You have an account and when you do a service your hours are recorded as a credit. When you receive a service your account is debited and the other person is credited. That is also how we work except we dont necessarily trade an hour for an hour. The person offering the service or goods decides what their service or goods are worth in monetary terms. In order for the credits to go into circulation as paper currency the account needs to be debited. So in a sense it is like a bank. You go to the bank or ATM machine, your account is debited and you take out your cash and use it. When you have too much cash you put it back into your account. But this is what we, the Adirondack Cooperative Economy, are offering, using the online mutual exchange system. I hope that makes it clearer.
E: Thanks. I’m wondering how credits are created. Is it like a LETS system where the sum total is zero, or are Lyour Credits created some other way?
A: I dont know LETS but I assume all true mutual credit systems are the same. It is basic accounting. The sum total is zero. Everyone starts with zero. Someone starts by buying and the other selling. So after that first transaction one is in minus and the other in plus. So to answer your question positive credits are created by a sale (balanced out by a negative balance with the other person). The person who has the negative balance goes “into commitment” as we call it. In other words, in a trading system he/she commits him/herself to also sell goods or services at some point to bring the balance back up to zero or more. A credit card company like VISA works on this principle but charges interest on negative accounts after a month. But they also charge transaction fees to the business receiving the payment. This transaction fee is passed off onto the customer, raising the prices of items being purchased. Bank loans are also simply negative balances in your account for which the bank charges interest. We do NOT charge interest or transaction fees at any time. We have one annual membership fee of $25 which covers the running costs.
E: Thanks for clarifying. Yes, that does sound like LETS: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LETS Are there limits to how negative or how positive you can go?
A: There certainly is not a positive limit. On the negative side, a modest negative balance is negotiated based on trade income. However, in the future, when a “credit rating” (for want of a better word) is established then larger negative sums can be negotiated. For instance if a well established restaurant needs to build an extension for $10,000, they can apply for a “loan” of credits from the credit community, involving a meeting and group decision. They then commit to repaying the loan with the increased business income. However the loan of credits can only be used within the community (building the extension with carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters who also take credits in the system)
One Adirondack Buck, at the moment, is valued at One US Dollar.