A recovery can’t fix everything that’s broken
Read it at his blog here, or an extract below:
Seven Problems a Recovery Won’t Fix
Source: HBR, Wednesday June 8, 2011
The Big Grinning Kahunas that run the world don’t agree on much these days, except one thing: the urgent, vital need for “recovery.” On both sides of an increasingly fractious political divide, there’s a common belief underlying the debates: what we really need is more stimulus, spending, cutting, slashing, or [insert big idea here], and the economy will “recover” — hey, presto!! — and pop roaring back into life. …
Recovery means “a return to a normal state of strength.” So here’s a question. Is recovery enough? Consider seven things that a mere “recovery” probably wouldn’t fix:
Stagnation. Median income has stagnated for decades and mere “recovery” probably isn’t enough to do much about it, because GDP isn’t concerned with who gets what. And if we all go right back to doing exactly the same old stuff, for the same old reasons, earning the same rewards…well, that’s how incomes stagnated to begin with.
Disemployment. The good news is we’re still creating jobs. But the bad news isn’t just that we’re not creating enough of them to go around — but that we’re mostly creating McJobs (sorry, McDonalds, I don’t mean to offend you, but the truth is that you offend me). Mere recovery probably won’t do much to derail this trend, because the rise of McJobs has deeper causes: offshoring, skills gaps, undereducation, regulatory deficits, our own bottomless appetite for McStuff.
Insecurity. Here’s a number that ought to set off nine-bell alarms in your head: nearly half of Americans are financially fragile — as in they probably couldn’t raise $2000 within 30 days to meet an unexpected expense. It’s the ugliest and most visible symptom of Great Depression–era level inequality. That’s not just grossly unfair in common sense terms, it’s a recipe for a society coming apart at the seams. Yet, mere recovery probably isn’t enough to do much about growing financial insecurity, not just because gross output isn’t concerned with how the pie is divided, but, more deeply, because fragility is a consequence of hypercompetitive, globalized, winner-take-all labor markets: in other words, it’s a feature, not a bug.
Toxicity. The industrial age economy’s addicted to harm: in order to profit, it’s more often than not got to trample on people, nature, or society. One recent relatively ambitious attempt to come up with an estimate — in my opinion, a very conservative one — puts the costs of global negative environmental externalities at 11% of the world’s GDP (pdf). Mere recovery doesn’t pay off a dollar of that deeper debt to nature — if anything, it legitimizes the idea that we should keep on keepin’ on the toxic shell game of harm, if that’s what’s necessary to prop up “output” (just like the idea that we had to bail out Wall Street, after Wall Street blew up the global financial system).
Pointlessness. Here’s a statistic that ought to set your hair on fire: somewhere between 50 and 75% of “employees” are “disengaged” (depending on whose numbers you want to buy): they don’t care much, if at all, about the work they do. But can you blame them? Perhaps they don’t care not just because the work they do feels pointless, but because, in human terms, it mostly is. Designing new bottles for deodorants or energy drinks or finding a new loophole in the law isn’t exactly helping design, craft, build, or maintain the Sistine Chapel. Yet it’s what roughly about 75% of us do every weary day of our drab working lives. Forget the numbers and just ask yourself: if you were to walk into any corporation, would you find faces brimming over with deep fulfillment and authentic delight–or stonily asking themselves, “If it wasn’t for the accursed paycheck, would I really let imprison myself in this dungeon of the human soul?”
Dumbification. Educational attainment has slowed in recent years, while unemployment has spiked for the least educated. Couple that with a “news” media that, instead of informing, actually misinforms, a culture fixated on GTL instead of great accomplishment, education, work, and play obsessed with the incremental and formulaic instead of the transformative and the creative, work that places dismal obedience and glum execution over joy, passion, elevation, and imagination — and I’d suggest you get what Richard Florida and I have called dumbification: a sapping and draining of the human thirst for great, world-changing achievement.
Dehumanization. As I’ve noted, GDP has long decoupled from more meaningful measures of welfare, like the ISEW or the GPI, that begin to measure what matter to humans, not just sociopaths in $7000 suits. Our economy’s been dehumanized, and mere recovery in the arid, sterile terms of GDP just isn’t good enough to rehumanize it.
I could go on, but you probably get the picture I’m attempting to crudely sketch. What if what we need to seek isn’t merely “more” prosperity, but meaningfully better prosperity?
The economy’s just a tool. It’s time to question not just it’s “how” but it’s “why.” Why do we have an economy in the first place?
For the last several decades — and perhaps even the last several centuries — I’d say the answer is for the pursuit of opulence: more, bigger, faster, cheaper. But the endgame of the pursuit of opulence goes something like this: right here, right now, the economy’s acting as a wealth transfer machine. The pursuit of opulence isn’t just failing to make most of us better off in human terms — more troublingly, it’s also failing to ignite the spark of enduring wealth creation today: it’s transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, from young to old, from the powerless to the privileged, from tomorrow to today, from people and society to corporate “entities.”
Hence, I’d gently suggest: recovery’s not enough. If more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier got us where we are today, then more more, bigger, faster, cheaper, nastier probably isn’t going to be the rocket fuel of a quantum leap into tomorrow.
It’s time to stop looking for “recovery” (as in ways to resurrect this drooling zombie of an industrial economy) and start seeding transformation (as in building a 21st century economy, that turns most or all of the toxic dynamics above upside down). It’s time to stop thinking about getting back to yesterday’s prosperity — and time to start thinking about how to get past it.
To get there, instead of starting at the beginning, start at the end. Why do we have an economy in the first place? If yesterday’s answer — for the pursuit of opulence — isn’t good enough, then as I’ve discussed with you here, I believe tomorrow’s might be: to ignite eudaimonia — a meaningfully well lived life. To ensure that people are living meaningfully better — that they’re getting fitter, smarter, wiser, tougher, fairer, more empathic, creative, deliberative — in terms that matter most to them. If that sounds simple, it’s anything but. It’s going to require years of building eudaimonic institutions–everything from updated conceptions of “GDP,” to reinvented “corporations,” to novel kinds of “jobs,” markets, schools, and perhaps even governments to build the rocketship that’s going to take the quantum leap into the 21st century.
I can’t build your own rocketship for you, nor can I take your quantum leap. You’ve got to do that for yourself. But to get started, we’re probably going to have to stop staring at our shoes, and waiting desperately for yesterday — and start impatiently looking up to the stars instead.
I like this a lot!