Finding A Moral Way in Economics

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The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a grown up economy Katherine Trebeck and Paul Williams Policy Press 2019

It is not surprising that economists now claim that their discipline is ‘queen of the sciences’. Yet despite the hegemony of economics the reality of the choices involved in economics are now rarely discussed. Politicians argue about the minutiae of taxes and benefits, or the geopolitical landscape of jurisdiction and boundaries. Brexit, immigration, border controls. While ignoring the fundamental building blocks of our societies. All the books on economics that I have reviewed on this blog address the bigger picture.The Economics of Arrivalis no exception. Trebeck and Williams have a powerful vision for an economic alternative. Their concept of Arrival is one in which sustainability, happiness and being at home, play a significant part. But this is not wishful thinking. Nor is it a call for massive government led redistribution of wealth, which would, they rightly point out, deal with the symptoms of inequality, not the cause. For them:

“The idea of Arrival does not imply that all problems are solved. It does not suggest that everything is resolved and everyone has what they need. Rather it is the idea that a society collectively has the means for this.”

They write of an economy that has ‘grown-up’. That recognises that growth (particularly as measured by GDP, a metric that was invented only in the middle of the twentieth century, is pursuing the wrong goal. They also paint a picture of how pursuit of GDP growth may in fact be causing the very hollowing out of economies that reduces middle income employment and increases wealth inequality. Unlike other progressive economists they recognise that a benefits economy may contribute to GDP growth while worsening the life situation of those it aims to help. Fundamental to the authors’ critique of our current economic reality is the concept of growth. They demonstrate that permanent growth is unsustainable not simply from an ecological point of view but also because it diminishes human happiness and well-being and, perhaps most importantly of all because of the separation of capital and production. They show that it is a cancerous growth that must be stopped. The authors describe how share-holder power and legislation designed to give shareholders primacy over employees or production has led to many of our problems. Executives whose performance management is based not on productivity, or the core-service provided but on the price of the companies shares, further exacerbate this problem. Frighteningly, they demonstrate how real wealth inequality is worse in the UK than elsewhere in GDP rich countries (including the US). Most importantly they show how this has not happened by accident but is the result of political choices. This is especially the case when returns from wealth are taxed more favourably than earned income.

Chapter three is very good on demonstrating how inequality creates status anxiety which can lead precisely to the sort of political instability that is happening across the western nations. Marketisation of the good things of life, such as cooking and child-care, are just two symptoms of a growth driven economy, “Not everything that can be bought and sold should be bought and sold.” (p47). Their description of the commercialisation or privatisation of child care is particularly frightening. When I began teaching 30 or so years ago I taught a Reception class and could guarantee to see a close relative (parent or grandparent) of a child every day, usually twice a day. That is no longer the case. Perhaps the saddest form of marketisation they highlight is the growth of ‘soft play areas’ for children,

parents don’t let their children play in the woods any more, so now they need to build the indoor, commercialised playgrounds.”

The authors are equally unsparing on the damage done by constantly rising house prices. I have long been critical of the double-income mortgage which far from bringing greater liberation to families has further trapped them in cycles of purchase and consumption. Despite their admission that uncoupling growth and carbon-emissions is almost impossible the writers are fundamentally optimistic. In Chapter Two they describe the many benefits that growth has brought and show how poverty, disease and wealth inequality have decreased worldwide in the last century. Their proposals include a radical cultural shift to show people that there can be economic growth with a destination. There can be a point at which we have ‘Arrived’. Practical suggestions are made for making the massive change called for happen. They recognise the strength of the forces that will be opposed to systemic change on the scale they suggest. They are clear that “Making ourselves at home is not a government-led vision.” (p 206) and they propose a series of practical steps for international institutions, governments, businesses, cities and local communities, and individuals.

Our politics is stuck. The inability to move ahead on Brexit is simply symptomatic of the inability to suggest new ways forward. Pure capitalism will destroy us all, and the planet we live on, but few people are suggesting real alternatives as they are here. This book tries to show how alternatives might be developed and implemented. It is not big government socialism, but it would require governmental action. Strangely, although I am generally an optimist, I found myself doubting whether the change in thinking suggested by Trebeck and Williams is possible. Perhaps that is why I am a Christian and believe that theology is queen of the sciences? I recognise the fullness of our nature. But I also think it is worth trying. There are no political parties that describe our economic situation in the way that it needs to be, none painting a significantly large picture of the way things are and the way they could be. These voices need to be heard and this book is well worth reading to hear them.

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