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There’s Hope for a New Economy in the New Year

by Brent Blackwelder

Early in 2011 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a profound condemnation of the global economy’s ill-conceived pattern of growth: “For most of the past century, economic growth was fueled by what seemed to be a certain truth: the abundance of natural resources. We mined our way to growth. We burned our way to prosperity. We believed in consumption without consequences. These days are gone… Over time, that model is a recipe for national disaster. It is a global suicide pact.” (Spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2011).

That’s a somber statement, but there’s hope that the U.S. will break free from this “global suicide pact” and develop a fundamentally different economy.  My prediction for 2012:  decentralized forces, formed in response to the unsustainable and unfair economic situation, will begin to fundamentally change how our national economy works. People in the Occupy Wall Street movement and groups working on human rights, public health, clean energy, and social and tax justice are laying the groundwork for a shift to a steady state — a dynamic and sustainable economy that pursues prosperity and full employment without GDP growth.

The grassroots mobilization to support clean energy and a healthy environment is a sign of the shift to come. The work of diverse groups protesting the dirty tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas motivated a huge turnout at the White House, with over 1,000 people being arrested. These protests were strong enough to get President Obama’s attention.  He delayed a decision on the pipeline and elevated the issue to center stage on the Republican agenda.

Statistics give us another hint that we’re headed in the right direction toward a steady state economy in 2012. Despite efforts by the Republican Congressional Leadership to undermine environmental protections (e.g., ongoing denial of climate change and attempts to gut EPA regulations), U.S. emissions have dropped by 7% in the last four years and are in line to drop further. Vehicle miles driven have declined, and ridership of public transportation is up 2%.

A cynic might say that the reason is simply the recession, but that’s only a small part of the story. Important actions such as renewable energy standards at the city and state levels are helping. Religious congregations participating in the Interfaith Power and Light initiative are reducing their carbon footprints. The campaign to shut down coal power plants and the substitution of natural gas for coal are also significant. Coal used to be the source of over half of U.S. electricity, but its share dropped to 43% in the first half of 2011 and is scheduled to drop even further.

As we enter 2012, we should redouble our support of those groups pushing for an economic paradigm shift based on sound governance and the principles of a just democracy. And it’s time to build a broad coalition of such groups to include those working on clean energy, public health, climate stabilization, financial reform, and other pieces of a sustainable economic system. Growing support for these groups and mutual reinforcement among them will provide the necessary spark to ignite the economic shift.

As we push for a just, environmentally sustainable world, we must continue to highlight the unabashed attempts by the richest one percent to continue fleecing the rest of us. December has featured a full array of proposed new financial gimmicks and tax breaks to benefit the very rich. For example, corporations with billions stashed in offshore tax havens are now seeking to bring these funds back to the U.S. with minimal tax under a so-called “Repatriation Act.”  They’re angling for a repeat of their lucrative repatriation flim-flam in 2004, a plan that saw 15 corporations bring back $150 billion at a 5 and ¼% tax rate instead of 35%. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations found that these 15 companies did not add jobs or increase research expenditures, but rather increased spending on executive pay and stock buybacks. Now more companies are petitioning Congress to allow them once again to bring the loot back home with the same tax break.

Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly supports such repatriation, the Women’s Chamber of Commerce, with 500,000 dues-paying members, opposes it. The members of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce aren’t benefiting from the offshore tax havens or the repatriation scams.

As 2011 gives way to 2012, outrage is in the air.  But that can be useful for uniting and motivating people of conscience across the political spectrum to work for change — to break free of the suicide pact described by Ban Ki-Moon. Mr. Ban has called on governments to supply “visionary recommendations” for the upcoming Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June of 2012. Here are two recommendations that, at this point in history, seem obvious, but would certainly be radical in the business-as-usual economy:

  1. Stop pursuing the ruinous pipe dream of continuous economic growth and work toward a steady state economy.
  2. Take power back from the oligarchy of the 1% to reclaim our democracy.

Best wishes for the new year.

A Mindful Path to a Steady State Economy

by Rick Heller

The Occupy Wall Street movement has struck a chord with its protests against growing inequality in the United States. Suddenly, it is conceivable that policies may be enacted in the next Congress that would raise taxes on the rich and make the American dream more affordable. But if all the Occupy movement does is to restore middle-class demand for large homes and late-model automobiles, it will have been a failure.

The United States faces two economic crises: one is a crisis of severely unequal wealth and political power; the other is a climate crisis driven by an economic model based on insatiable consumption. A Robin Hood approach that redistributes wealth from the rich to the less affluent but does not address the dynamic of excess consumption will not fix and could even exacerbate the climate crisis.

These two economic crises have a common driver — greed. Is it possible that the Occupy movement could take on greed itself, or is that pie-in-the-sky dreaming?

Consider this. Back in 1966, only 42 percent of college freshman considered “being very well off financially” to be an important personal goal. That figure rose to about 75 percent by the time President Ronald Reagan left office. If it is possible to promote greed, it must also be possible to promote generosity.

A traditional way to discourage greed is by shaming those who engage in elaborate displays of wealth. But if criticizing excess consumption made a powerful difference, we would have seen results already. Allow me to introduce a practice that can address greed called mindfulness. Although derived from Eastern thought, it has been appropriately secularized for Western audiences.

I’ve led mindfulness meditations at the Occupy Boston spirituality tent. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with a nonjudgmental accepting attitude. Many Americans have been exposed to it as part of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, a hospital-based program that helps people deal with physical and emotional pain. Indeed, the program I am trying to create could be called Mindfulness-based Greed Reduction.

When one pays close attention to the present moment with a welcoming attitude, the here and now becomes more vivid and joyful. Mindfulness can make negative experiences feel neutral. It also makes neutral experiences feel positive, by restoring a sense of freshness to the wonderful things in life you take for granted. When you realize how much you already have, you feel less need to accumulate more and more. It thus promotes modest appetites in place of greed.

The best way to verify this is to start practicing mindfulness yourself and see if it works. But for those interested in a technical explanation, let me go into the neuroscience.

Our appetites go through a cycle of wanting and liking — which reinforces further wanting. When we desire something, the brain transmits a chemical called dopamine. When we get what we want and like it, the brain releases internal opioids. The latter are chemically similar to morphine and heroin, which helps explain how desires can become addictive.

Addicts need increasingly higher doses of a drug in order to continue to get the same high. People who get their satisfaction from having and spending money likewise need more and more of it to feel rewarded. This is because of habituation. Dopamine neurons in the brain react most strongly to unexpected rewards. When rewards come in steadily and predictably, handling them shifts to the habits system, which operates with little conscious involvement and little sense of pleasure.

This presents a challenge to advocates of a steady state economy. How can you keep people excited when the stream of rewards fails to grow?

Spirituality Tent at Occupy Boston

Mindfulness addresses this challenge by showing how to find novelty in the smallest details of daily life. As you tend your own garden, you become absorbed by each blade of grass. This absorption produces a steady flow of dopamine and a continuous feeling of satisfaction. Mindfulness generates novelty and excites the dopamine neurons not by covering a lot of ground fast, but by delving deeper into familiar turf. As the poet Allen Ginsberg once wrote, “You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”

Mindfulness practices, including yoga, are spreading rapidly in the United States. They will spread even more quickly if movements like Occupy embrace them. But will this be quick enough to make a difference for the climate crisis? Although I can’t predict the future, it may be easier to change young people’s minds about consumption that it is to alter the energy infrastructure of the United States.

Ultimately, we need to pass legislation that restrains carbon emissions. But it will be easier to do if Americans realize we can continue to grow in happiness even as we shrink our dependence on the planet’s resources.

Rick Heller is the author of Occupy the Moment: A Mindful Path to a New Economy.

Presenting the Economic Policy of the Occupy Movement

by Brian Czech

If there is one thing the Occupy Wall Street movement has generated, it’s the opinion that there is no unifying agenda or policy being advanced by the Occupiers. Perhaps that explains why we (CASSE) have been asked repeatedly to contribute to that agenda and identify that policy. And perhaps the time has come to oblige.

No one can claim to represent the entire Occupy movement or all its concerns. The wide-ranging movement has taken on local, grassroots issues as much as national, systemic concerns. I got a taste of that recently during a visit to Bloomington, Indiana, where the local Occupiers were camped out on the perimeter of Indiana University. I was in Bloomington to give a talk about steady state economics at the university, and happened upon the Occupiers’ camp my first night in. They had little to say about Wall Street, GDP, or national unemployment. Maybe it was just my timing — which happened to correspond with Halloween– but the Bloomington Occupiers seemed pre-occupied with surviving the annual student “Zombies” march that apparently threatens the security of Indiana University every Halloween. The Occupiers were equally concerned with aggressive Zombies and the police assembled to confront said Zombies. (They feared the police would use the Zombies as an excuse to clean house all around the campus.)

It’s hard to blame the Occupiers for focusing on local issues and forces. Police suppression alone saps the energy from many movements, as I recall from the days of World Bank demonstrations. Yet despite the inevitable localization of Occupier concerns, the Occupy movement needs a national identity to survive, and it needs a macroeconomic policy goal to unite around. That policy goal should be a sustainable and fair steady state economy. Let’s see why.

The Occupy movement is, first and foremost, an objection to the rule of Big Money; big corporations, big banks, and big-time rip-offs of the taxpaying public. It’s all about economic justice. But at this point in history, economic justice is complicated by limits to economic growth. The old notion that a “rising tide lifts all boats” has become morally inadequate and physically irrelevant. In a world of over 7 billion people and an economy over $73 trillion in gross world product, the Wall Street Bull is tromping through an ecological china shop with increasingly endangered glassware. It’s not only that the Wall Street Bull is kicking Occupiers and the rest of the 99% out of the way; the Bull is destroying the planet. It spans the globe but the globe is full.

The Occupiers need to get this, discuss it, and emphasize it. Otherwise, they could be unfairly portrayed as just the latest brand of populists seeking to expropriate the expropriators. Wall Street could point out that everybody has always wanted “theirs,” including Nazis, Bolsheviks, and French revolutionaries known today as “The Terror.”

The Occupiers can do better. They are better.

The Occupy movement can do better especially by adopting the steady state economy as its macroeconomic policy goal. That means an economy with stabilized levels of production and consumption, which means stabilizing population and per-person consumption. It means an economy that fits on Earth without threatening present and future generations with its overbearing, bloating size. It means an economy of stable size that, when accepted by national governments and sought in international diplomacy, replaces war as a mode of getting “theirs.”

Only sound economic diplomacy — steady statesmanship — can ensure that everyone gets enough without killing thy neighbor. Wall Street doesn’t get that. To the corporations and banks, the world is a china shop to buck around in, and good luck to the kicked.

The ball is in the Occupiers court. They’ve got to concern themselves with more than the local food, zombies, and police. Occupiers must decide if they really want to distinguish themselves from the growth-at-all-costs corporations, banks, Democrats and Republicans that really and permanently occupy Wall Street. Can they distinguish themselves with steady statesmanship?

I think they can, and I’m one of them!

Making Sense of the Protests through a Post-Growth Lens

by James Johnston

The world has recently seen protests on Wall Street, rioting in London, and tension in other parts of Europe as it deals with insolvent debtor nations. Mass confusion is in the air.

In New York, as the protesters try to explain why they feel exploited, critics and observers can’t seem to figure out what they’re crying about. Protesters have been labeled a bunch of entitled, rambling, half-naked young hipster eccentrics. In London, the world witnessed a similar process of bewilderment, where observers couldn’t initially put their fingers on why impoverished “working class” rioters were out causing a fearful stir (after all, most of the critics were motivated and had decent jobs, thank you very much). Meanwhile, stocks around the world continue to rally and tumble with unprecedented volatility. Growth forecasts and economic orthodoxy are proven wrong again and again. Job and wealth creation strategies don’t help the people who need it most.

If the protesters are rambling eccentrics, then traders, mainstream economists and policymakers must be lunatics because they continue to make the same mistakes and expect better results each time!

Frankly, neither side of the debate has a particularly firm handle on the reality of the problem, and hoping that the movement will simply fade away will prove to be wishful thinking. Among all the mass confusion, steady-state theory might help us account for not only the the economic problems, but also the ideological divide. Using the Wall Street occupation as our example, let’s assess the two sides of the debate and hypothesize how the two groups have come to inhabit such different planets.

First, the two sides of the debate are divided primarily along generational lines, not just ideological ones. The protesters might be characterized as a group of well-educated, disenchanted and heavily indebted young people who were raised to be grossly unprepared for the situation they find themselves in. They were told that when they completed their degrees, a growing economy would enable them to pay back their hyper-inflated loans and put a down payment on a massively overpriced home (relative to historical norms). Not only are these young people seriously indebted and underemployed, but they know the planet’s ecological line of credit is also maxed out, causing them to question what they should be working so hard for in the first place. They’re expressing legitimate frustration with a set of real, serious problems that go unaddressed in the U.S.

What about the other side? While some lucky or ambitious younger folks may also fall into this category, it can more generally be characterized as an older, more comfortable cohort on auto-pilot that has grown accustomed to the illusion of perpetual growth. They’ve witnessed it their whole lives: growth in asset values (including home values), growth in the economy’s energy use (more stuff, more suburbs, more oil), growth in levels of indebtedness (to afford it all), and growth in the supply of money.  They are perpetuating a system that is structurally engineered to collapse without feeding its addiction to growth (mainly by exploiting future generations).

Unfortunately, those advocating the status quo are firmly entrenched in their beliefs, and they have in their midst traders, economists and policymakers who can articulate those beliefs well.  Meanwhile the protesters have yet to present a unified and coherent set of theoretical principles to rebut conventional arguments and explain their worldview. They come off as disoriented, lost, and a little incoherent. But stupid they are not.

While the nuanced reasons for protest vary around the world, young people have a visceral grasp of something that the most comfortable in our global society are simply too sheltered to acknowledge — big problems in an economy that has been engineered for ecological and financial ruin.

It’s only a matter of time before confusion gives way to clarity, when we’ll have to come to terms with our post growth reality. It will begin with a set of pragmatic banking reforms: a gradual increase in the fractional reserve requirement, the reconnection of investment banking to the real economy, and the regulation of derivatives.

That’s just the beginning.

After Wall Street — or whatever comes next — we will all have to make an effort to inhabit the same finite planet and bridge the divide. We will have to find common purpose in the realignment of our overarching social and economic goals — not toward yesterday’s notions of solidarity or neoliberalism — but toward meaningful capital maintenance for prosperity without irresponsible growth.