In Parts One and Two of this series, Mike Dowson argued that ‘jobs and growth’ is no longer the recipe for success we have been led to believe. In this final part, he looks at what might genuinely promote security and prosperity for more people.
What do you really want?
Fame? Looks? Followers? Cars? Bling? We can become fixated on superficial things. But we always know that’s what they are, don’t we? They may be nice to have. But what’s more important?
A career? A home? A partner? Children? Retirement? Perhaps one of these is on your mind right now. That’s not what I’m asking either. Plenty of people have those things and still aren’t happy. What makes a home joyful, a career fulfilling?
Adventure? Purpose? Contribution? Humour? Companionship? It’s the non-material things. Everyone knows that. It’s not just a moral precept. You really can be happy without riches, and miserable with any amount of money. Contemporary research supports traditional wisdom.
This is wonderful. It means we don’t need to destroy the world and fight each other for possessions to be happy. It means we are already adapted to a world of finite resources.
The factors which promote human wellbeing are remarkably humble and consistent. At a basic level, they are food, water, shelter, energy, safety and care when you need it.
After that, non-material factors make the biggest difference. It doesn’t matter where you live, how much you own or what your politics are. Nobody likes being oppressed or threatened. Everybody likes being appreciated and acknowledged. Something meaningful to do, access to learning and information, and participation in decision-making are important.
If you want to live a long time, and keep your mental health, whatever your circumstances, have lots of good friends. You can add cars and bling if you want, but they won’t make much difference.
We humans are very lucky in that it doesn’t take much to provide what we need. We don’t need to eat all day, like a ruminant, or traverse the world, like a migratory bird. The best stuff is limited only by our willingness to provide it for each other.
But we have a problem. When our basic needs aren’t met, we become very disturbed. It’s true of food and shelter, but also non-material needs like care and companionship. And the craving we feel drives us to find sources of consolation.
Canadian physician Gabor Maté believes the breakdown of intimate relationships, especially early in life, is leading to a modern epidemic of addiction. Not just to drugs, but to gambling, sex, work, money, anything which can momentarily distract or comfort us.
If that’s true, the solution is obvious, isn’t it? We must ensure that all children get the loving care they need growing up. If we do that, many of the problems of adulthood should lessen over time.
But what if you’re an addict? What if your addictions are wealth and power? You might prefer to exploit the vulnerabilities of your fellow citizens to feed your habit. You might be looking for experts, not to heal people, but to harness them. If we didn’t have one already, you’d probably invent the advertising industry.
Nothing contributed more to the post-war boom, and suffering in its aftermath, than the burgeoning symbiosis of advertising and electronic media. Neuroscientists, psychologists and communication specialists were paid handsomely, not to help us be more happy, healthy and productive, but to make us discontented, narcissistic and grasping.
As neoliberalism took hold of our economy, industry propagandists invaded public and private spaces, from billboards, to bus shelters to portable devices. Under their pervasive influence, we acceded to work harder, borrow more money, and buy more stuff. The failure of spending to fulfil us only led to more consumption, causing more dysfunction, requiring more remediation, creating more work.
It’s bad for people. But it’s good for business. The treatment worsens the disease, while the river of profit swells. This is the philosophy that gave us ‘jobs and growth’.
What, then, do we really want? To follow our insatiable investor class into social and environmental calamity? Or to build quality of life on what we really need?
If it’s the latter, and I hope it is, there are some things we can do, without getting into a conflict over ideologies. Whether you want a worker’s paradise, or a haven of free enterprise, there are common principles that lead to stable, prosperous societies, and we neglect them at our peril.
Who’s in Charge Here?
We can start by holding politicians and experts accountable for a different set of statistics. GDP and employment do not tell the true story. You can be employed in a growing economy and still be in miserable poverty, if growth comes from population, and rising costs leave wages behind. That was the plight of workers during the First Industrial Revolution.
Even the Prime Minister doesn’t really want jobs and growth. I haven’t had the opportunity to ask him but I don’t need to. If he really wanted it, he would be promoting policies which have a chance of success. Removing the tax rorts that divert investment from productive enterprise, for example. Or supporting Australia’s promising renewable energy sector. What the Prime Minister wants, I surmise, is to keep his own job.
The problem is he doesn’t work for us. Over the last few decades, big business and government have become partners in the exploitation game. To planners and decision-makers, we are now a resource, like the crops and livestock on the plains, and the minerals in the ranges.
So the next thing we should do is reassert the power of ordinary people. It’s time to remove big money from politics. GetUp has a plan for doing it, which is why they’ve become a target. If you can think of a reason not to do it, you must be a lobbyist, someone who employs one, or a politician on the take. There’s nothing in the current arrangements for anyone else.
A lot more is required to fix government in Australia. There are good examples from other countries, and smart people here with good ideas. It can happen as soon as we collectively insist on it. But no-one should be under any illusion that our future can be assured by voting for different people under the current system. We might as well redecorate the Lodge.
The stats that are increasing are the wrong ones. As we import workers for skilled jobs, more of our existing population goes to prison. This is a sign of grotesque political expedience, not good economic management and effective law enforcement. But our largest gaol isn’t physical, it’s financial. The genius of our young people is being locked up behind a high wall of debt.
Is it any coincidence that those nations which most foster the potential of their young people have stolen our lead for indicators of wellbeing? Instead of forcing parents and students into penury for an education, they publicly fund extended leave and child care for parents, and good schools, vocational training, tertiary education, and affordable housing for young people.
We should curtail immigration that only serves commercial interests. And we should reduce the burden of private debt for profit. We could take more refugees and still shrink our migrant intake overall. And funding education and housing publicly again would empower our existing workforce and close those doors to greedy opportunism.
We can remove debt from the public spending equation. The hallowed budget surplus is a furphy, as modern monetary theorists like Dr Steven Hail will tell you, which is why politicians abandon it as soon as it suits them. In fact, elusive as it is, under our present circumstances, it would be harmful.
Our federal government can and should spend debt-free money into the economy any time there is something important to do and people and other resources available to do it. Any notional “debt” is just an accounting entry. Who do we “owe” the money to? Ourselves.
No-one needs to suffer while private investors twiddle their thumbs. As the late economics professor John Hotson argued, financial lethargy should never be allowed to keep available resources from genuine need. That turns a lazy servant into a tyrannical master.
The powerful won’t tell you this. They want you to think that money is in limited supply. That myth favours the people who’ve already got it. As soon as you find out the truth, their game is up.
That doesn’t mean we can forget about tax. Tax is one of the main ways the rich take advantage. Not only do many pay little to no tax themselves, they promote the idea of shrinking the public sector by reducing taxation altogether.
As government budgets tighten, under cover of austerity, and services fail, the public becomes more amenable to privatisation. Then the rich go shopping. By the time we notice we’re now paying extra for hefty profits with our newly privatised services it’s too late. This starves new productivity of investment.
Shrewd people have used the Australian tax system to dramatically increase wealth inequality. The absence of a wealth tax, along with negative gearing and concessions on large family homes, capital gains and superannuation have relieved the tax obligations of people whose essential qualification is that they are already wealthy.
Contrary to popular belief, tax doesn’t fund public spending. But it can restrict inequality, put lazy money to work and positively influence behaviour. We should do that and stop pampering the rich.
When a system fails to answer basic needs for any of us, we’re all on notice. Historically, economic injustice makes whole societies vulnerable. Do you think prosperous people start revolutions or civil wars?
Every day now, we are failing to provide food, shelter, and care for more people. Nonsensically, failure is more expensive, unless we are willing to simply let people die. If that day arrives, the nation we took pride in is finished.
There are solutions for housing. Ian McAuley suggests we wind back the tax rorts in real estate, reinvest in public housing and develop a settlement policy, so speculators can no longer buy up overcrowded cities, leaving thousands with nowhere to live.
Instead of consigning our elderly to oblivion and our youth to The Hunger Games, we can help them contribute and fix our politicised social security system. A job guarantee would afford participation to those who want regular employment in the monetised economy. An unconditional basic income would help students, some carers and sporadic earners like artists, who may not, as well as protecting pensioners and other people in need. Professor John Quiggin makes a good case.
Today’s mature population inherited a nation that was becoming more progressive and egalitarian. There was still a long way to go. And neoliberalism lured us down a dark alley for a mugging. But Australia in the previous century proved that whatever you may want for yourself, you’re more likely to get it in a country that empowers its kids, gives its disadvantaged a leg up, and insists on a fair go. So let’s do that again.
Replace GDP and employment with true measures of wellbeing. Chase big money out of politics. Stop using population growth to enrich a rentier class. End the tax rorts and redirect investment into productivity. Reduce our private debt burden with more public investment in education and housing. And restore trust, confidence and participation with a job guarantee and a basic income.
It’s only a start. It’s not the revolution. It’s not even as radical as the reforms of the Whitlam era. In fact, it’s largely a restoration of those gains, a way out of that dark alley and back onto Main Street.
‘Jobs and growth’ are not the same as prosperity and wellbeing. They’re a couple of deeply flawed statistics which allow politicians and technocrats to conjure a successful economy from an insider racket. If we aim for what we really want, we can still debate methodology, while we attend to emergencies like climate and water, and revitalise our economy from the country’s vast potential, instead of selling it off to well-connected scammers and dodgy foreign magnates.
One likely outcome, at least in the short term, might be surprising. The economist Richard Denniss pointed this out. Jobs and growth.
That’s right. It may not be Muslims, gay weddings, feminists, renewables, refugees or corporate taxes which are holding back the economy after all. Perhaps corruption, rent-seeking and incompetence on a massive scale are all it takes.
What Will We Leave Our Children?
There is one shocking statistic that isn’t often discussed, because it’s so obvious. It leaves no room for debate. No-one will contest it. It’s the figure for human mortality. One hundred percent. That’s the current figure. And it’s not going to change.
Power will not protect us. Wealth will not preserve us. Nothing here belongs to us. It’s all on loan. We are temporary residents.
The most profound message of evolution is that death is necessary. That’s how it works. You can read this, and reflect on these ideas, only because millions of your ancestors died. Through countless aeons since the beginning of life, one change after another in the genetic code produced different attributes in the individuals who came before you. Some, like language and cognition, were favoured by circumstances, and those were passed on, but death spared no one. Only the winning attributes survived, so that others could thrive. Whatever else it is, life is sacrifice.
Complex organisms like us have another mechanism for passing on traits. Every unique expression of the human genome is born into a culture of human beings. Our language, our values and our beliefs are also our inheritance. Whether we are born gifted or challenged, into poverty or plenty, our fellow human beings will decide whether our experience is kind, caring and supportive, or cruel, mean and exploitative. And what we do with that inheritance determines which of those attributes will prevail.
We cannot save ourselves. We cannot exempt our children. But we do influence the kind of world our descendants will live in.
Years ago, approaching the high tide of neoliberalism, and not long after Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History”, my boss, Ed, was invited to dinner by the CEO. Later, he shared with me the insight he’d been given into the meaning of existence by this doyen of the business world: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
The great tapestry of human achievement unfurled before my mind. The scientific discoveries, the technological advances, the art, architecture, literature, music and philosophy, the brave social movements, the terrible sacrifices made by innumerable people to bequeath a better world for stunted narcissists to gloat in.
“Brilliant, isn’t it,” said Ed.
The times require us to confront obnoxious and destructive expressions of human potential. But should those be the qualities our generation is remembered for?
They shouldn’t, and we know they shouldn’t, but if we don’t stand up for something better, they will be.
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