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Too Many Jobs

by Max Kummerow

Without doubt unemployment blights people’s lives. Those who want to work need jobs. But an even more fundamental economic problem is too many people beavering away, wrecking our home planet. Politicians and economists assume population growth means more people need jobs, so the economy must grow. Better to reverse that logic, starting instead by calculating the level of output the world’s environmental resources can sustainably support. How can jobs and economic output keep growing on a damaged planet with shrinking resources?

Some economists claim that technology or human ingenuity is the ultimate resource, but such platitudes ignore the realities of technological advance. The truth is that technology both creates and destroys jobs. Labor-saving innovations often increase productivity by reducing employment. And the downsides of technology abound. Fanatics use the “ultimate resource” to build bombs. Nuclear physics gave us an energy source and medical advances, but also atomic bombs and toxic pollution. The Green Revolution that helped double or triple world grain yields relies on fertilizer made from natural gas that will eventually run out. Meanwhile, populations needing food have tripled since the inception of the Green Revolution. Growth enabled by technology puts humanity further out on a limb, increasing ecological and economic risks.

If we are so smart and technology can solve every problem, why hasn’t every problem been solved? Historians list dozens of collapsed societies. Why didn’t brainpower save past empires? Why are carbon dioxide emissions still increasing? Why, after the global financial crisis affected so many people and communities, did banks go back to speculating in derivatives? Why are a billion people stunted by malnutrition? Why are so many species going extinct? Why do war and arms races persist? And so on across a range of unsolved local and global problems.

A sign of too many jobs: this eyesore (a modular worker colony) sprouted at the Bakken shale oil deposits near Williston, North Dakota.  Photo by Ben Garvin, Reuters.

A sign of too many jobs: this eyesore (a modular worker colony) sprouted at the Bakken shale oil deposits near Williston, North Dakota. Photo by Ben Garvin, Reuters.

Perhaps the greatest irony is that even though we are counting on technology to save us, the U.S. is cutting research funding. At the same time, the cost of attending college is becoming unaffordable. In 1992 dozens of Nobel Prize-winning scientists signed a “warning to humanity” saying we should stop changing the earth so rapidly. When the world ignores scientists like Jim Hansen (NASA pioneer climate modeler), isn’t public indifference squandering the “ultimate resource?” What a contradiction: relying on science to save us and then ignoring the recommendations of our leading scientific experts.

The ecological footprint reveals that the world economy is already too big. Ecologists calculate that sustaining current levels of output would require 1.5 earths. If everyone lived like Americans, more than four planets like earth would be required. Scientists have identified nine key areas where the scale of human economies could damage earth’s ability to support us for the long run. Three of the nine “planetary limits” have already been exceeded, reducing the planet’s capacity to support human life. Current levels of economic output require drawing down planetary “savings accounts” (soils, fossil fuels, species diversity, etc.) that are rapidly being overspent and depleted.

We’re caught in a dilemma. We have too many jobs — too many people are consuming too many resources as they go about their jobs — and yet huge numbers of jobless people struggle to meet their basic needs. At the same time, policies are geared toward growing the economy with the hope of adding more jobs, while disregarding the problem of overconsumption. What can we do?

Several commonsense jobs policies could help us achieve full employment within planetary limits. In the short term we could share employment more fairly. The U.S. could achieve full employment by increasing vacation time — we get two weeks where Europeans get five weeks. We could cut back to a four-day work week, lower retirement age (say to 60), offer more part-time work or job sharing, and send more people back to school to upgrade skills. Incomes would be reduced and social security taxes would increase due to these measures, but we would enjoy more fairness in distribution of income; less crime; more leisure time; more time for family, friends and community; and improved quality of life. We might even live longer — people in half a dozen well-off European countries live two years longer than Americans.

In the long run, we must stabilize or decrease population. Society should subsidize the first child and allow a second child without penalty, but require parents who choose to have more than two children to pay the full costs of educating and providing medical care and old age support for those extra children. People who expand population take more than their fair share of everything while imposing costs on the rest of us by collectively pushing up prices for housing, land, food and energy. Crowding makes life more stressful in many ways — traffic congestion, longer lines, more competition for jobs and college admissions, higher unemployment, lower wages and higher taxes. Extra kids contribute to climate change, pollution and resource depletion. Requiring those with large families to bear the costs their extra children impose on others would incentivize responsible family planning decisions. Far from being repressive, having smaller families corrects market failure, liberates women and makes families and children better off. The world’s best educated women voluntarily choose small families as shown by the below-replacement fertility rates in some of the best educated countries.

Reversing direction to optimize the total number of jobs, rather than pursue unlimited job growth, won’t be easy. Economists must accept a major paradigm shift. Such a shift has been described in the literature for over 200 years starting with Malthus, Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Classical economics theory included limits to growth — a “stationary state.” Sharing jobs and stabilizing population won’t solve all economic and ecological problems. Many other reforms need to be included on the agenda to achieve a steady state economy that features environmental protection and sustainable levels of consumption — reforms like a carbon tax, conservation of species diversity, and redistribution of wealth.

For such laws to be passed in democracies, the public would have to be far better informed to understand why these changes make sense. Pro-growth messages come at us incessantly from mass media, the Internet, and pro-growth lobbyists, politicians and businesses. A keystone reform will be to overhaul the way we fund our information-providing institutions. We currently use information from these institutions to make important decisions. The trouble is that much of the information is actually misinformation, because the institutions obtain their revenues from advertising that pushes the infinite-growth agenda.

Abandoning the ideology of growth so firmly embedded in economic theory, popular culture and the media will be difficult. But economic theory reform, media reform, job sharing and changing human fertility behavior will be far easier than changing the inescapable laws of physics, expanding the land area of the earth, or doing business in cities inundated by rising sea levels. Difficult is still a lot easier than impossible.

Elect More Women: Prerequisite for a Sustainable Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

In 1990 there were only two women in the U.S. Senate, but in 2013, twenty women will be serving in the Senate, and another 81 women will take office in the House of Representatives. With this record number of Congressional seats held by women, the U.S. is closing in on the global average (20%) for lawmaking bodies. This is good news because evidence suggests that governmental bodies with more women are more likely to tackle issues of social justice and environmental health (and they’ll be more likely to pass budgets that reflect these concerns).

Especially noteworthy in the U.S. election were the defeats in the Missouri and Indiana Senate races where Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock gained notoriety when they expounded their views on rape. Akin announced that in cases of “legitimate” rape a woman’s body had defenses to avoid pregnancy, and Mourdock asserted that a pregnancy from rape was something that “God willed.”

It’s worth celebrating U.S. electoral gains for women, but there is a long, long way to go. Iceland, for example, has a majority of women filling its university professor positions, and women comprise almost half the members of parliament.

Why is it so important to elect more women to positions of power? And is having 20% of seats enough to make a difference? Researchers Tali Mendelberg and Christopher Karpowitz found that when women make up 20% of a decision-making body that operates by majority rule, the average woman used only 60% of the floor time as the average man. But once women comprise 60 to 80% of such a group, “they spoke as much as men, raised the needs of the vulnerable and argued for redistribution.”

Mendelberg and Karpowitz conclude: “…when there are more women in legislatures, city councils and school boards, they speak more and voice the needs of the poor, the vulnerable, children and families — and men listen. At a time of soaring inequality, electing vastly more women might be the best hope for addressing the needs of the 99 percent.”

Empowerment of women is the centerpiece of the strategy to achieve a sustainable, ecologically sound economy. Here are two of the many reasons for this claim: first is the overarching problem of a growing population. The inexorable momentum of the global population has led to over 7 billion human beings on the earth today and more to come every day.

At dinner tonight on this planet there will be 220,000 mouths to feed that were not present yesterday. Such a figure should cause alarm because the quality of farmland on the planet is being significantly impaired by erosion, by overpumping of ground water, and by the flood/drought cycles being exacerbated by global climate disruption.

Most experts on population growth observe that when women achieve a higher degree of status, respect, and power, they tend to have fewer children. Thus, empowerment of women is a key progressive strategy to stabilize population. In addition, slowing population growth could help reduce future climate-destabilizing emissions.

A second area is government budget priorities. Lawmaking bodies dominated by men spend too much money on war and too little on conservation, protection, and restoration of vital ecosystems. If the majority of members of legislative bodies were women, budget priorities would be influenced by more discussion and debate of sound economic policy.

In contrast to most policy discussions, which spend 90% of the time on the problem and 10% on solutions, I will conclude with two suggestions for continuing the trend of empowering women. First, enact a law that mandates a gender analysis before deploying U.S. foreign assistance in the form of projects, loans, or grants.

It surprises some people to hear that U.S. foreign assistance may be making women worse off. Most aid worldwide is not accompanied by any gender analysis that would answer the basic question: will women be better or worse off as a result of this grant, loan, or matching fund? The nonprofit organization Gender Action offers information and resources for tracking the effects of international financial flows on women.

Second, conduct more robust campaigns to fund family planning services worldwide. Population Action International points out that 215 million women who want to avoid pregnancy lack access to contraception and family planning.

The difference between a world reaching a population of 8 billion people in 2050 as opposed to 9.2 billion is huge. A world of 8 billion would emit roughly two billion fewer tons of carbon – an amount that is equivalent to what would be saved by eliminating all deforestation.