Trebek and Williams ask: What if we ran our economies and societies as if we had “arrived” - instead of obsessing about progress?


 We heralded this book nearly a year ago now, but delighted to see that it has finally, er, “arrived”. Katherine Trebek and Jeremy Williams’ The Economics of Arrival (website and purchase point) gathers together much of the advancing thinking about wellbeing and sustainability driven economics, and integrates it with a clear metaphor. What if we ran our socio-economics systems as if our “progress” had actually “arrived” at its destination? If we had decided to stop and make a home here?

It’s a beautiful trope, and as you’ll see from the extract below - taken from the brilliant Scottish autonomist blog Bella Caledonia - very productive and clarifying for readers and citizens:

In everyday economics, there is no such thing as enough, or too much, growth. Yet in the world’s most developed countries, growth has already brought unrivaled prosperity: we have ‘arrived’. More than that, through debt, inequality, climate change and fractured politics, the fruits of growth may rot before everyone has a chance to enjoy them. It’s high time to ask where progress is taking us, and are we nearly there yet?

As far as individuals are concerned, success in our definition of making ourselves at home is to orient ourselves around what is most worthwhile, and having permission and capacity to be oneself rather than what the current economic system compels and demands. On a wider level, making ourselves at home is a narrative of a new purpose for the economy and institutions.

Pope Francis comes somewhere near this with his 2015 encyclical, which implores humanity to ‘care for our common home’. Other religious leaders have a similar vision.

Even some economists already embrace this notion. Kate Raworth points out that lots of work has gone into studying how growth can ‘take off’, but that every plane needs to eventually land and that part of the metaphor is missing. ‘What would it mean to prepare high-income economies for landing so that they could touch down safely and become thriving, growth-agnostic economies when the time was right?’

                                                                               * * *

As societies recognise that they have Arrived and making ourselves at home becomes the economy’s goal and purpose, we would expect lower inequality and a more inclusive economy. So a country that has Arrived and has put its energy into making itself at home will no longer need to redistribute income to such a great degree, because its citizens will have a stake in the country’s wealth.

At the heart of it would be a move from an economy that aims for growth to a wellbeing economy that aims for sustainable, shared prosperity – a profound shift. This economic system would reward more fairly in the first place: the market would be able to do more of the heavy lifting, rather than relying on so much redistributive intervention by the state. Although redistribution will remain important for the foreseeable future, can we imagine an economy so inclusive that redistribution is obsolete?

                                                                                 * * *

In a service-based economy with a new emphasis on making ourselves at home, carte blanche pursuit of labour productivity makes little sense. Nobody wants unnecessary or meaningless work, so clearly efficiency and productivity are good things. But when economic value is the only thing that matters, productivity can be taken too far, and the ‘human value’ of work is lost.

Maximising labour productivity can undermine service provision, degrade the worker, lead to job losses and be captured by the already-wealthy. In those circumstances, where productivity is appropriate, what if we turned down the opportunity of using productivity improvements to produce more? What if we used them instead to produce better-quality products, to increase quality of life via leisure and to share the available work more fairly?

Making ourselves at home in this way might entail building the economy on its ‘foundational’ components instead of those sectors celebrated for their ‘growth potential’. The ‘foundational economy’, according to one description, is ‘very large, mostly unglamorous, rather heterogeneous, and distributed across the country. It is an economy that meets every day needs by providing taken-for- granted services and goods such as care, telecommunications or food’.

In the UK this sector employs 40% of the workforce (in both private and public organisations) in socially useful jobs that underpin economies and societies but that are also functions that do not necessarily lend themselves to being measured through the lens of productivity in a narrow sense

                                                                            * * *

Perhaps the question to ask is this: what would society look like if we valued the business of taking care of everyday life more than the apparently more alluring business of making money? If greater productivity didn’t always have to mean more output, it would enable a reallocation of the efficiency gains offered by some technologies, increase motivation to shorten the working week and enable more people to remain in employment.

This would value purposeful work as a good thing in itself, rather than simply as a means to increase incomes and expenditure, and as a cost that employers should seek to minimise. The sort of work that is conducive to the task of making ourselves at home would be cultivated – via a new materialism that requires higher labour input.

Imagine, for instance, how the relatively labour-intensive craft, care and repair economy, supported by a high-technology base, could offer resource-light, income- earning activities in roles that enhance that scope to make ourselves at home: entertainers, for example, or preventative health workers, artisan manufacturers and organic farmers.

 More here from the Bella extract.