Here are some of the latest economic ideas coming out of Europe:
- Take longer coffee breaks.
- Don’t upgrade your software or buy a new computer.
- Forget about that graduate degree.
- Bring your child to work. All day. Every day.
- Spend a lot of time on the internet. With a dial-up modem, of course.
- Don’t maintain the machinery at your plant. That might keep it from breaking down.
- Cut your R&D budget.
- Forget that; eliminate your R&D budget.
These weren’t exactly the proposals advocated by Tim Jackson in a Times editorial today, but they might as well have been. Jackson is a “professor of sustainable development” and advocates that we should pursue “less productivity” (seriously!) in the economy. Here is the take-away.
Perhaps in the long run it’s an easier and a more compelling solution: to loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity. By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.
Just when I thought that Europeans (and the rest of us) couldn’t get any worse economic advice than Paul Krugman’s ranting about the evils of austerity, along comes Prof. Jackson with this sage advice: just do things less well.
Sustainable development is one of those very dangerous buzz words that came out of the last century. Dangerous because it cloaks old-fashioned anti-capitalist gibberish in jargon that has an appealing sound. Who could be against sustainability or development, after all? But it is unusual to see the regressive aims of this movement couched in such stark terms. And, in case your wondering, the sustainability is questionable, and the development is non-existent.
Jackson thinks we should transform our economy into one that cares more about the “caring professions,” jobs where time and human interaction are key: medicine, education, social work. But only if it is one with less focus on efficiency. We don’t want educational tools that allow more learning with fewer dollars, or medical innovations that reduce suffering and disease. What Jackson wants is more time–more human time. “Even to speak of reducing the time involved,” says Jackson, “is to misunderstand its value.”
In an economy that focuses on efficiency, there is more time for human interactions. Indeed, that is the very definition of increasing labor productivity is reducing the time required to perform a particular task. So, if we want doctors to have more face time with patients or teachers to have more one-on-one time with struggling students, we need more productivity, not less. That doesn’t mean productivity gains will be channeled into the activities Jackson values, of course. But the unstated essence of what he is saying, and what those people who would increase command and control in the economy always always say, is that “people should value what I care about instead of what they care about.”
Jackson sees a less productive labor force as a means of increasing employment. In this view, since there is a certain amount of work to be done, if workers are less productive, it takes more time to do that fixed amount of work. Voila! Unemployment solved. But what he doesn’t mention is who pays for all of these new unproductive workers. Ahhhhh, there’s the rub. You see, in the background of Jackson’s sustainable lifestyles is a powerful mechanism that diverts, through force, productive resources that are focused on profit to paying for an ever-increasing number of workers whose aim is not economic value, but “caring.”
So, when we peel back the rosy language of caring and sustainability and people “devoted to work with devotion, patience and attention” we get something not new at all, namely a massive welfare state continually draining the capacity of the economy to produce goods and services, while workers work less, do less, for shorter time with greater compensation.
Jackson is the author of a book called Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet. I would say what is really “finite” is Jackson’s mind and the future of the economy if more and more people buy into his vision of sustainability.
Hollande for President, anyone?