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Preamble: New Economy, Sustaining Economy

The economic crisis has stimulated much soul searching and, more generally, searching for something better. Along with the environmental crisis, it has exposed the severe shortcomings of business as usual and the current order.

A great imperative Americans now face is to build a new economy—a sustaining economy. Sustaining people, communities and nature must henceforth be seen as the core goals of economic activity, not hoped for by-products of market success, growth for its own sake, and modest regulation.

We are told to seek a strong economy. We know now that we should seek first a strong society, a strong nature, and a strong democracy. Today’s economy offers little help in these regards. We must move beyond it. We need to reinvent the economy, not merely restore it.

Political action must embrace a profound commitment to social justice and a powerful assault on economic privilege. It must embrace a sustained challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, and a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market.

Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the of the world it is a god that is failing—underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those of us in affluent societies, creating more problems than it is solving. The never-ending drive to grow the overall U.S. economy undermines families, jobs, communities, the environment, a sense of place and continuity, even mental health. It fuels a ruthless search for energy and other resources, and it rests on a manufactured consumerism that is not meeting the deepest human needs.

Before it is too late, America should begin to move to post-growth society where working life, the natural environment, our communities, and the public sector are no longer sacrificed for the sake of mere GDP growth; where the illusory promises of ever-more growth no longer provide an excuse for neglecting to deal generously with compelling social needs; and where a truly democratic politics is no longer hostage to the primacy of powerful corporate interests.

Needed Policy Initiatives

America’s open-ended commitment to aggregate economic growth is consuming environmental and social capital, both now severely diminished. At the same time, it is abundantly clear that American society and many others do need growth along many dimensions that increase human welfare, now and in the future: growth in good jobs and in the incomes of the poor; growth in availability of health care and the efficiency of its delivery; growth in education and training; growth in security against the risks of illness, job displacement, old age and disability; growth in investment in public infrastructure for urban and inter-urban transport, water, waste management and environmental amenity; growth in the deployment of climate-friendly and other green technologies, as rapidly as possible; growth in the replacement of America’s obsolete energy system; growth in the restoration of both ecosystems and local communities; growth in non-military government spending at the expense of military; and growth in international assistance for sustainable, people-centered development for the half of humanity that live in poverty, to mention some prominent needs. Even in a post-growth society many things need to grow.

We need targeted policies that directly address these objectives and America’s compelling social needs—policies, for example, that strengthen families and communities and address the breakdown of social connectedness; that guarantee good, well-paying jobs (including green-collar ones); that provide for universal healthcare and alleviate the devastating effects of mental illness; that provide a good education for all; and that ensure care and companionship for the chronically ill and incapacitated.

Of particular importance are government policies that will temper growth while improving social and environmental well-being, such as: shorter workweeks and longer vacations; greater labor protections, job security and benefits; restrictions on advertising; a new design for the twenty-first-century corporation, one that embraces rechartering and stakeholder primacy rather than shareholder primacy; strong social and environmental provisions in trade agreements; rigorous environmental, health and consumer protection, including full incorporation of environmental and social costs in prices; greater economic and social equality, with genuinely progressive taxation of the rich and greater income support for the poor; heavy spending on public services; and initiatives to address population growth at home and abroad.

If the market is going to work for the betterment of society, environmental and social costs should be incorporated into prices. Honest prices will ensure that people take into account the environmental and social impacts of their purchases, whether they’re environmentally conscious or just minding their pocketbooks. High prices are a problem not because they are high but because people don’t have the money to pay them and alternatives (e.g., truly fuel-efficient vehicles) are not readily available. Honest prices would be higher prices for many things, but that does not mean Exxon should pocket the difference or that equity issues should remain unaddressed.

Responsibly high energy prices, driven for example by a declining cap on carbon dioxide emissions, will help protect the earth’s climate, increase demand for efficient vehicles and public transportation, spur new renewable energy industries, decrease the supply vulnerabilities and international entanglements of imported oil, strengthen local communities and encourage localization rather than globalization. But honest energy prices must be accompanied by measures that make them affordable by those on whom they would otherwise impose a serious hardship.

Conventional wisdom on the clash of economy and environment is that we can have it both ways, thanks to new technology. We do indeed need a revolution in the technologies of energy, transportation, construction, agriculture and more. This ecological modernization can be driven by quantitative restrictions that ensure extractions from the environment do not exceed regenerative capacities and discharges to the environment do not exceed assimilative capacities. But the rate of technological change required to deal with environmental challenges in the face of rapid economic growth is extremely high and rarely achieved. If pollution from an industrial facility is cut in half but growth spawns another similar plant, there is no net gain. Housing, appliances and transportation can become more energy-efficient, but the improvements will be overwhelmed if there are more cars, larger houses and new appliances—and there are. There’s a limit to how fast and far new technology can take us; technological change alone is not enough.

Economic Crisis and Beyond

Americans are struggling with the combined impacts of crumbling financial assets, tighter credit and layoffs. These problems are associated with a slowdown in GDP growth, but the failure of growth is not truly their cause, and they will not necessarily be cured by more growth. We have had jobless growth before. As is now appreciated, the current economic crisis is the result of government failing to intervene appropriately in the marketplace–in financial markets, in housing markets, in labor markets and elsewhere. We are today on the receiving end of misguided policies, including massive deregulation, that have led to deep structural maladies. Major corrections are needed.

The economic crisis should also teach us to live more simply and focus more locally. It is time to move beyond our consumerism and hyperventilating lifestyles. There has been too little focus on consumption and the mounting environmental and social costs of American “affluenza,” extravagance and wastefulness. Being less focused on getting and spending (initially, in part, because there will be less to spend) can help society rediscover that the truly important things in life are not at the mall nor, indeed, for sale anywhere.

Psychological studies show that materialism is toxic to happiness and that more income and more possessions do not lead to a lasting sense of well-being or satisfaction with life. What makes people happy are warm personal relationships and giving rather than getting, things that are possible at a human scale. The good news is that more and more people sense that there’s a great misdirection of life’s energy. In a survey 83 percent of Americans say society is not focused on the right priorities, 81 percent say America is too focused on shopping and spending, 88 percent say American society is too materialistic, 84 percent want to spend more time with family and friends. These numbers, even if half right, suggest there’s a powerful base on which to build. More and more people are saying: Confront consumption. Practice sufficiency. Create social environments where overconsumption is viewed as silly, wasteful, ostentatious. Create commercial-free zones. Buy local. Eat slow food. Downshift. Public policy should support these directions, and it should devise new measures to track improvements in social welfare, a purpose for which GDP is a miserable failure.

Building a Unified Progressive Movement

What circumstances might make deep change plausible? A mounting sense of imminent crisis, occurring at a time of wise leadership, accompanied by the articulation of a new American narrative or story and the appearance across the landscape of new and appropriate models, all these would help. Most of all, we need a new politics and new social movement powerful enough to drive change.

We live and work in a system of political economy that cares profoundly about profits and growth. It cares about society and the natural world in which it operates mainly to the extent it is required to do so. It is up to us as citizens to inject values of fairness, solidarity and sustainability into this system, and government is the primary vehicle we have for accomplishing this. But mainly we fail because our politics are too enfeebled and government is more and more in the hands of powerful corporations and great wealth. Our best hope for real change is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and political democracy into one progressive force. We are all communities of shared fate. We will rise or fall together.

Environmentalists and social progressives must join to address the crisis of inequality unraveling our social fabric and undermining democracy. It is a crisis of soaring executive pay, huge incomes and increasingly concentrated wealth for a small minority while poverty approaches a thirty-year high, wages stagnate despite rising productivity, social mobility and opportunity decline, the number of people without health insurance soars, job insecurity increases, safety nets shrink and Americans have the longest working day of all the rich countries.

Progressives of all stripes must also join in seeking to reform politics and strengthen democracy. America’s gaping social and economic inequality poses a grave threat to democracy. We have seen the emergence of a vicious circle: income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the economic disparities. Corporations have been the principal economic actors for a long time; now they are the principal political actors as well. Neither environment nor society fares well under corporatocracy. We need to embrace public financing of elections, lobbying regulation, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting and other reforms as a core of our agenda.

For the most part, we have worked within our current system of political economy, but working within the system will in the end not succeed when what is needed is transformative change in the system itself. George Bernard Shaw famously said that all progress depends on not being reasonable. It’s time for a large amount of civic unreasonableness.


Publication By

James Gustave Speth

James Gustave (Gus) Speth served on the faculty of the Vermont Law School as Professor of Law from 2010 to 2015. He now serves as a Fellow at the Tellus Institute, The Democracy Collaborative, and the Vermont Law School. He is Co-Chair of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. In 2009 he completed … Continued

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