Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams are joint authors of The Economics of Arrival (Policy Press, 2019).
Dr Katherine Trebeck is Policy and Knowledge Lead for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance and instigated the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership. She is a political economist with over eight years’ experience with Oxfam GB (including developing the Humankind Index). She is Honorary Professor at the University of the West of Scotland and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Strathclyde (based at the Fraser of Allander Institute).
Jeremy Williams is an independent writer and activist. He studied journalism and international relations and specialises in communicating social and environmental issues to a mainstream audience. He has worked on projects for a wide variety of charities and campaigns, including Oxfam, RSPB, WWF and Tearfund, and he is a co-founder of the Postgrowth Institute. His award winning website, The Earthbound Report, was named Britain’s number one green blog in 2018.
Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams are joint authors of The Economics of Arrival (Policy Press) published in 2019.
MEASURING WHAT MATTERS
When do we decide that economic growth has grown enough? And what comes next? The ground-breaking book The Economics of Arrival: Ideas for a Grown-Up Economy (https://policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/the-economics-of-arrival) asks whether we have already arrived at that point and if so, whether it’s now time to make ourselves at home.
Authors Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams propose an economic model that redistributes our resources in the interests of equality. If we have already arrived, then instead of a never-ending focus on more growth, lets make ourselves at home and improve what we have to the benefit of all.
In an exclusive feature for SURF’s website magazine, Trebeck and Williams ask:
HAS SCOTLAND ARRIVED? HOW WILL IT MAKE ITSELF AT HOME?
Back in 1956 the American economist JK Galbraith warned that:
To have failed to solve the problem of producing goods would have been to continue man [sic] in his oldest and most grievous misfortune. But to fail to see that we have solved it and fail to proceed hence to the next task would be fully as tragic.
Yet, some seventy years on since Galbraith penned these words, the priorities of the 20th century are still being vigorously pursued into the 21st – more growth, more consumption – despite mounting damage to people and planet. Progress that has been achieved is now at risk from climate change, debt, environmental decline, inequality and extreme politics.
This is not just an ephemeral question on the global scale. For Scotland too, the time is ripe to ask if Scotland has produced enough goods and economic wealth? Has it ‘Arrived’ – as we describe in our book – in the sense that growth is a means to an end, and at some point the work of growth is done? Is it, as Galbraith says, time to proceed to the next task?
Scotland has enough wealth and resources to theoretically provide a high quality of life for all its people: but the top 1% alone owns more wealth than the bottom 50%. So whether everyone has a good life in reality is a matter of access and distribution. There are enough resources in circulation – but how could they be used in a smarter and fairer way, rather than wasted or hoarded?
Those are questions of politics and institutional design. Arrival is therefore a possibility, not a promise.
The next task is what we call ‘making ourselves at home’.
Getting a sense of what making ourselves at home would entail isn’t hard. There are clear commonalities from different corners of scholarship, religious texts, and more popular songs than one could mention. The answer is also innately within us as human beings. Whenever people are given time and space to reflect or when they are surveyed about what matters most to them, they point to things that are rarely connected to mountains of money.
A suite of evidence also tells us that people are not happiest when they are consuming, but when spending time socialising and engaged in meaningful activity. Not when working longer hours to make more money, but when they are in nature, learning, and undertaking fulfilling activities. This is revealed in emerging research in neuroscience, epidemiology, and psychology. Neuroscience, for example, tells us that cooperative behaviour activates the reward areas of the brain, which suggests that human beings are ‘hard-wired’ to enjoy helping others, cooperating, and being kind. In fact, life expectancy; a sense of political efficacy and government accountability; climate and natural capital are more important than GDP per capita in predicting mean levels of life satisfaction in 79 countries.
Translating these goals into practical changes offers a range of next steps. Economies making themselves at home could seek a better balance of work and leisure time. They could create healthier democracies, using deliberative processes, participative budgeting or community auditing. Work could be improved through workplace democracy and employee ownership, which would also reduce inequality and create a more inclusive economy that ‘predistributes’ rather than relying on the state to do the redistributing. Industry could focus on true sustainability, designing out waste and developing circular business models running on renewable energy.
Fortunately, there are working examples of this all around. We see it in the cooperative businesses such as John Lewis, whose partners live longer than employees of comparable, but non-cooperative businesses. We get a glimpse of it in initiatives such as the Edinburgh Remakery (PHOTOGRAPH) that is teaching people to repair their gadgets and furniture rather than throw them away and purchase more. It can be inspired by enterprises such as Ishack in South Africa which is providing jobs and training while installing micro-energy generation. Participatory budgeting projects are cropping up in Newcastle, Luton and across Scotland, from Govan to Leith (and are spurred by the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment agenda). In politics there are also pioneers of this new agenda: New Zealand has launched a wellbeing budget, Wales has appointed a Future Generations Commissioner and Scotland is leading the Wellbeing Economy Governments Partnership.
But are our measures of success fit for the purpose of cultivating such an economy? In places such as Scotland, how much of what still defines national success – GDP growth – is actually negative?
GDP is a crude measure that aggregates all spending and includes expenditure on all sorts of things that we’d want less of, such as car accidents, oil spills or floods. As the environmental crisis takes its toll, more and more negatives are going to be tallied up by GDP. A boom in housebuilding after a terrible wildfire? Business start-ups providing pollination services after the collapse of local bee populations? GDP will roll those all in and call them progress, but as Herman Daly says, it would be more accurately described as uneconomic growth. When it comes to spending, GDP acts against the prevention agenda that so easily trips off the tongues of Scottish policy makers.
The idea of ‘failure demand’ helps us grapple with the dynamics at play. Failure demand was first identified by business consultant John Seddon. He observed that a rise in calls to a company helpline doesn’t mean that you have a great helpline. It means something is going wrong somewhere else in the business. That’s failure demand, and once you’ve heard the term, you can see it all over the place. For example, the rise in the number of people on income support in Britain doesn’t reflect Britain’s world-class welfare system, but the failure of the economy to provide a living wage. Rising expenditure on housing benefits is driven by a housing market out of control. The growth of food banks, debt counselling services, homeless shelters, or private security firms would all be examples of failure demand.
There have been efforts to map some of these downstream, reactive expenditures. A government review in Scotland found that 40% of the country’s public spending was ‘devoted annually to alleviating social problems and tackling ‘failure demand’ – demand which could have been avoided by earlier preventative measures.’ Another study by The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that poverty costs Britain £78 billion a year, with £1 in every £5 of government spending ‘making up for the way that poverty damages people’s lives’.
The existence of failure demand (and its environmental equivalent: defensive expenditure) points to the potential for doing things differently, more effectively and less wastefully. But it requires a substantial re-purposing of the economy – and politics – around it. And that requires stopping, looking around, and seeing that there is enough wealth and resources. Once we recognise that Scotland as a whole has arrived, we can turn our attention to making sure everyone is included and resources better used. In other words, settling in and making ourselves at home.