Fri Oct 1st, 2010 at 05:27:29 PM EST
As I explained in my earlier diary What we stand for: Quasi-Rawlsian ethics, I am trying to clarify our identity by highlighting common positions that we, as a group, overwhelmingly share.
I was going to touch about today's subject in a diary about the quest for sustainability, but comments by JakeS convinced me that it needed to stand on its own, as its roots were not merely -nay, not mostly, in the need for sustainability.
JakeS explained our not being productivists in those words: "There is a level of economic activity that would satisfy us, and it is for most of us somewhat below the current level of economic activity in The WestTM - or at least not greatly beyond it."
This is certainly a fair description of us as a group. To risk new words, I'd venture that we are exponents of Qualitativism vs Productivism and Consumerism
A newcomer to this site might be surprised by how matter-of-factly is a point of view stated here that would probably appear quite controversial in most circles: that GDP is an almost meaningless metric. I realise that one or two posters defended it to some extent on the grounds that it was probably nicer to live in Norway than in Zimbabwe (only the keenest sun lovers would dispute that), but most of us feel almost obliged to add a few words of excuse when making a point based on GDP.
This is but one manifestation (albeit a very visible one) of a rather distinctive trait, that we overwhelmingly share, that takes us apart from the dominant discourse, whether left or right, namely that we do not tend to be productivists or consumerists to anything like the extent shown in the mainstream discourses.
Much of the political promise from both the left and the right (those who know me know how much I believe such categorisation to be outdated, but let me use it for once) revolves around the promise of more production and consumption. The right will talk of more consumption for the successful entrepreneurs (and often act simply for more consumption for the rich and the politically connected, you knew I could not avoid that rant didn't you?), and claim that this will maximise total production. The left will talk about enabling more consumption for the less favoured classes, and help ensure that more gets produced through state incentives and, sometimes, direct state production. Some countries do not even have a leftist discourse, merely arguing over ways to best promote investment.
We do not tend to state extra consumption (certainly not aggregate consumption) as a major goal today in the developed world -or then, not consumption of things that are produced (spare time, clean air, friendship and talks through the night when watching the stars are all things that we reckon could be "consumed" more). To be fair, this is not quite a unique position, even in the political discourse, as now some parties give a voice to the idea that more production is the wrong target. It remains a fringe position, though, as evidenced by the fact that it is not one held by a major party in any bipartite system I can think of.
This view is, though, almost seen as demonstrably obvious in those pages. For the sake of a recently joined reader, I will try to summarise a few of the reasons that make us reject the goal of productivism in general, and its flagship GDP in particular. No doubt much more convincing points will be made in the comments.
GDP is an odd way of keeping score. It attempts to put a value to the sum total of all that is being produced and traded within a country. Not as a net result over a period of time -only the aggregate of the production part. So, repairing something that just got broken is part of GDP, provided that someone is paying for it. Being paid to clean a house that I have sullied adds to GDP, in a way that not sullying it in the first place does not. An industry with a dirty process that pays to get half of its emissions cleaned away will add more to GDP than one that managed to avoid the pollution altogether -even though the outcome is still dirtier air. Resource depletion doesn't even get a passing mention.
And you need the money exchange for it to count. If I were to invite you to the restaurant, I'd add to GDP, but not in the more likely event that I would actually cook for you (though it would have to be a damn good restaurant for the former to present you with a better meal). Helping each other just for the sake of it? My, let's not get into that.
You get the picture. GDP is not a totally useless indicator, but it's so far off being accurate as to render its use among somewhat similarly developed countries almost pointless. A higher GDP may just as much be the sign of less social interaction as of bigger activity.
Besides, while I mentioned in passing the issues with pollution and resource depletion, I did not even get into one resource that should matter a great deal in whatever social evaluation we attempt: you, I, people in short. Until people are utterly and completely useless in the production of anything -which will never happen since we can always teach, write, tend to the elderly... - the maximisation of production will require the minimisation of non-productive time.
OK, we could play some semantics. One might argue that all time is productive, if we stretch the word "production" far enough to include producing rest from a good night sleep, fun from a light-hearted conversation with friends, warmth from a hug... If the word was to be thus stretched, I think you'll find most of us to be quite productivist.
But that's not how it's understood. And the dominant view here is that, in the developed world at least, we are chasing the wrong target. Yes, many of us want more stuff, but the main reason why we do is not that it would really make us happy, rather that there is a whole industry designed to make us believe that it would.
Chasing a higher production level is pushing through some very unpleasant choices. The environment is badly stretched. Workers are put through enormous pressure. We are taught to behave as individualists. Whole cities are turned into artificial attraction parks. Workdays are long, and often involve very long commute, because jobs don't last as long these days so it's difficult to make sure you live close to work.
And for what? Well, I'm not too sure. More toys, probably. But none leaves such a lasting memory as the ones we had when they didn't change so often. More food is not really a positive in the developed world -indeed it leads to spending to get thinner. Stress related diseases seem more frequent.
Most of us at ET feel that "more toys" is not such a great prospect as to be willing to sacrifice everything for it. Should we add to GDP, we'd rather have more yoga classes than more horsepower in a car -or even a car in the first place, for quite a few of us. We tend to strive for more meaning in life, rather than for more consumption goods. It is something that we can, to an extent, practise ourselves, but mostly it is a desire for a society which helps this. We stand for a, for want of a better word, "qualitativist" society.
This is not to say that there are not people, in our society, who would greatly benefit from more consumption, and indeed we stand for helping them do so -this gets us back to our Rawlsian tendencies which I wrote about earlier. Yet this would need no increase in aggregate production. Indeed, it may be argued that their plight is one tool of the maximisation of production, since it helps convince precarious workers to work hard and not complain much. Well, as a group, we'd rather they were better treated, from the existing pie or even a slightly smaller one. There is easily enough to feed everyone in the world decently, and even have the basics. In developed countries, there could be a roof for everyone even if production shrank 50%. That this is not the case is not due to a lack of aggregate consumption / production.
Before I conclude, let me point out the obvious and state that we are no angels. We may reject consumerism as a doctrine, yet most of us do consume far more than we should -far more than would be sustainable for 6 billion humans to do so. Mostly, we travel too much. While some (like me), try their utmost to avoid flying whenever possible, others have a significant frequent flyer card. And even avoiding planes, the number of my Eurostar trips is embarrassing. Several of us rarely cook. We probably could repair our clothes a little longer before getting new ones. We tend to have much more electronic equipment than we need -and in fact I am using some of it to type right now. And some of us work much too long hours to accommodate for the quantity of social interaction we'd advocate.
Yet I don't think that this invalidates our rejection of consumerism. Quite to the point, I don't think any of us would define himself by his wealth. Some of us are quite successful , but it probably is not the main goal for any of us (yes, I grudgingly include the investment bankers of the community in that comment ;-) ).
Most of all, we have to make do with the society we were born in. We may try to move it somewhat, but mostly it will affect our behaviours. Most of us would welcome more social interaction, but this cannot be decided unilaterally. We need others to be available for it to happen of course, but also many of us have specialties where the system will not let you work short hours. We would be quite willing to sacrifice a little in order to breathe clean air, but this is one of many decisions that cannot be made by individuals and need to be a society choice. This is an agenda that we strongly advocate, and that we are looking for ways to promote.