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.

Economics as “Unusual” in Australian Politics

by Robert Lawrence

An important event has been hardly noticed in Australian politics. But it could be the start of a trend to recognize and address causes of social and environmental problems rather than merely to struggle with the symptoms. Until recently economic growth, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), has been the primary indicator of governmental performance, with alternatives virtually absent from the political discourse. At last one brave member of Parliament is changing that, unafraid to lead the way toward a steady state economy.

To understand the significance of this event, we need to get some perspective on the Australian political situation. There are two rival sides that differ mainly in rhetoric and in their strategies for winning support from voters. More than 90% of elected politicians belong to these two sides.

There are two houses of Parliament. One is the House of Representatives, which does the main business of government. The other is the Senate, which reviews the decisions of the House of Representatives. A group of Senators is elected to represent each of the six Australian states.

Voting is compulsory in Australia for citizens over 18 years of age. There is a preferential voting system in which every candidate must be ranked for a vote to be counted at all. Effectively this has meant that Australians ultimately had to choose between two political parties. In voting for the House of Representatives, votes for independent candidates and minor parties have rarely made an impact. The electoral system is built around the two parties. There is a review of electoral boundaries every seven years. Boundaries of electorates are redrawn so that there is a more even competition between the two major parties. The parties distribute leaflets on how to vote for their candidate, and these suggest an order of preferences for the other candidates.

The situation is different for the Senate, in which each of the six Australian states has its own set of candidates. This setup has given the minor parties and independent senators an opportunity to wrest some power away from the two main parties. This happened during the last national election when the Australian Greens and a small number of independents were able to cast deciding votes. This meant that citizens who voted for a minor party actually had a voice at last. A tax on carbon emissions commenced on July first as a consequence.

Australia has a free press. A common approach in the media has been to strive for a “balanced” view, which has generally been achieved by presenting extreme viewpoints on any given issue to contribute a public “debate.” The effect of this is to polarize the public, rather than to seek well-reasoned, informed decisions.

Another major factor in the political landscape is the opinion poll. Although polls can help politicians be more responsive to the electorate, they can produce undesirable consequences. Politicians become concerned about managing perceptions rather than governing from the best advice of their departments. Another consequence is that both the major political parties tend to become almost indistinguishable. One gives lip service to workers’ rights and the environment, while the other to business. In practice it is impossible to tell which is better in any aspect. Both major parties express disdain for each other and struggle to find ways to differentiate themselves for voters. Often “debate” deteriorates into personal attacks.

But one issue on which both major parties agree, as is the case throughout the western world, is the imperative of economic growth. Rising GDP is the unquestioned prime measure of success.

Conservationists have been dealing with the consequences of the growth-is-good dogma. They have taken the approach of running campaigns on specific, strategic issues that tend to address the symptoms of too much economic growth. One could argue that they have been afraid of being further marginalized as a lunatic fringe with no grasp of reality. At least population growth has recently made it onto the political agenda, but there has been near silence on economic growth.

Christine Milne understands the link between economic growth and environmental deterioration.

Christine Milne has been a Senator for Tasmania since the middle of 2005, and she became the leader of the Australian Green Party in April this year. There are currently nine Australian Greens in a house with 76 members.

Milne delivered a speech in late September in which she made some astute observations. She said that we can build an economic system that serves the needs of people and nature, both for today and for tomorrow. She quoted from a report of the World Economic Forum, “More with Less: Scaling Sustainable Consumption and Resource Efficiency”:

“Current trends clearly show that business as usual no longer works. Unless the present link between growth and the consumption of scarce resources is severed, our resource base, governance and policy structures are unlikely to sustain the standard of living societies have grown accustomed to or indeed aspire to. Action to decouple business and economic growth from resource intensity and environmental impact, has never been more critical to the long term success of business.”

Milne continued by suggesting that we reconsider who belongs to the lunatic fringe in our 21st-century economy:

“Surely it’s time that those who advocate economic growth derived from resource extraction and pollution as the major path be the ones labeled wacky, loopy, irresponsible, divorced from reality or connected to the CIA.”

She went on to question who actually benefits from pandering to mining companies while ordinary people are struggling to make ends meet. Her full speech is worth reading.

Where is this likely to lead? The media and politicians are completely out of their depth in considering an alternative to the perpetual growth paradigm. Such a change even seems to be beyond the scope of thinking of conservationists. Even members of the Australian Greens may have underestimated the significance of this speech. Almost everyone seems content to ignore this speech and go on as they have.

But now that a prominent politician has publicly questioned the dogma of growth, we’ve moved a little closer to a much-needed turning point in Australian politics. Thanks to Christine Milne for saying what needed to be said. How refreshing to see true leadership taking root within the barren fields of the Australian political landscape.

Robert Lawrence runs Heritage Bushcare, a small business that removes weeds to improve the condition of areas of remnant vegetation. He is also secretary of the Nature Conservation Society of South Australia and the Native Orchid Society of South Australia. He is the author of Start with the Leaves: A Simple Guide to Common Orchids and Lilies of the Adelaide Hills.

Muddled Media Messages

by Rob Dietz

With great regularity and often a touch of subterfuge, a certain message crops up in the offerings of the mainstream media. Like a powerful riptide to an unsuspecting swimmer at the beach, the message tries to grab our attention and pull it out to dangerous seas. And that message is, “Consume!” Let’s examine for a moment an ironic example.

Take a look at this recent cover from O The Oprah Magazine. At first glance, it appears to espouse an ideal compatible with a steady state economy. The banner says boldly, “De-clutter your life! It’s time to simplify things – Oprah’s starting with her closet*.” I won’t make any comments here about the quantity (or quality) of stuff in Oprah’s closet, but I will point out the riptide that’s contained in the not-so-innocent asterisk at the end of the banner. The asterisk connects to text that says, “Her bags, her shoes… Your chance to bid and win! O’s Great Online Auction.” So Oprah wants to de-clutter her life, but you should clutter yours with all her excessive stuff. Perhaps bidders can get a good deal, and perhaps Oprah is donating the proceeds to a good cause, but the underlying directive is still, “Consume!”

It doesn’t take amazing insight to recognize that consumption (and usually conspicuous consumption) is promoted in magazine articles, newspaper columns, television programs, movies, and websites. After all, most producers of mainstream media are in business because of the revenues paid by advertisers. We’re all familiar with product placements – I had equated them with the common cold. Certainly a cold is a nuisance and I’d prefer not to catch one, but I can get on with life while trying to ignore it. In contrast, the brazen blurring of lines between the story and the message to consume is more like a serious bout of the flu. It pretty much ruins the whole experience, and it can’t be ignored. The flu takes over and becomes the focal point.

I’ll provide a print example and a film example to illustrate my point. My first example comes from Newsweek. I used to be a subscriber from the late 1990s until about 2005. I found Newsweek’s writing to be adequate, even if the bulk of George Will’s columns originated from an alternate reality that occupies a dark and distorted corner of his mind. But over the course of our subscription, something started bothering me more and more until I finally had enough. I wrote a letter to the editor (perhaps unsurprisingly, it was not published) and cancelled the subscription. Each week, the magazine published a “Tip Sheet” section with an alleged purpose of reviewing the latest trends. It seemed harmless enough, but over time, it concentrated more and more on consumption of superfluous products. It read like a series of sales pitches for the latest gas guzzlers, techno trinkets and gaudy gadgets. I wondered if marketers were paying Newsweek to include their latest wares in the section – regardless of the answer, it felt like that was the case. This over-the-top use of a “news” section to hock products severely interfered with my ability to enjoy the other sections.

I like to read a good article or book as much as the next person, but I really consider myself a movie person. Pound for pound, movies pack the biggest storytelling punch of all media contenders. And I’ve seen a lot of them (especially in my more youthful days). It’s embarrassing to admit, but if there were a Useless Information Corporation, I could be the manager of the 1980s and 90s Movies Department. As a result of my time in front of the movie screen, I’ve been annoyed by hundreds (or possibly hundreds of thousands, on a more subliminal level) of product placements in movies. Consider Reese’s Pieces in E.T. and FedEx in Castaway, two of the most egregious examples, and you get the idea.

Movie sequences like these do blur the lines between the story and the advertising to some extent, but they don’t necessarily take the viewer out of the movie experience and into a sales experience. Yes, E.T. eats candy, and that might influence the viewer to eat the same candy, but the scene does play a role in advancing the plot and seems plausible – how else would a young boy entice a creature to follow him home? But over time the blurring has reached insane levels.

For the nuttiest film example I’ve seen of advertising supplanting the story, I turn to the mediocre romantic drama Love Happens. If I was feeling embarrassed about all those 80s and 90s movies I saw, let’s say I’m downright mortified by the fact that I wasted time on this film.

Love Happens stars Aaron Eckhardt as Burke Ryan, a successful self-help guru who specializes in helping people deal with the loss of loved ones. Jennifer Anniston plays his quirky love interest. One of the characters in the film is a guy named Walter. On the outside, he’s big gruff guy with a doleful demeanor; on the inside, he’s more like a big teddy bear. Walter is attending one of Burke’s multi-day seminars against his better judgment. Using all his best tricks, Burke is unable to get Walter to open up about why he’s at the seminar.

Predictably, Burke has a breakthrough with Walter and gets him to share his story. It turns out that Walter’s young son has died recently in a tragic accident, and he is struggling to piece his life back together. His relationships have blinked out of existence, and he has lost his general contracting business.

How does Burke help put Walter on the path to healing? (Cue the triumphant music) He takes Walter and the rest of the seminar attendees on a shopping spree to Home Depot. For a substantial portion of this film, the viewer is treated to smiling people cruising around the hardware store picking out all the wonderful items that a general contractor needs to get back to work. Yes sir, a solid day of shopping is really all you need to get over the death of your son. That outrageous message took me completely out of the film experience. I was stunned by this shameless attempt to couple strong emotions of redemption with the purchase of a hammer and a toolbelt.

Given the difficulty of finding a movie (or some other media product) that tells a story without trying to trick the viewer into consuming something, what’s a fan of film to do? One way forward is to make a game out of it – see how often you can spot the blurring of lines, and keep a running list of the most outlandish examples. If that doesn’t suit, you can always just tune out.

For more fun with over-the-top product placement, take a look at this list and this one, too.