Juliet Schor: A Vision for Plenitude

The first half of Juliet Schor’s new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth recaps her 2008 Illahee talk on the evolving discipline of economics, the psychology of consumption and happiness, and our rapidly increasing demand for “things” even as our economy stagnates. The second part of the book is Schor’s prescription, which she calls Plenitude, for these ailments. Here in Portland we’re already familiar with much of this: down-scaling, DIY, community-gardening, trading time for wages. What’s novel about Schor’s new book is that she provides a vision and initial framework for a new economy, one that is emerging out of choice and necessity all around the country.

One of the more sobering aspects of Plenitude, and the talk she gave on May 25th for Illahee and Natural Step Network members, was the magnitude of the economic hole we’ve dug ourselves.  The global economy has lost trillions of dollars (mostly vapor value anyway) and millions of jobs. We’re deep in debt as a nation, and we’d need to add hundreds of thousands of jobs to our economy every month for the next decade just to stay even with new job-seekers, never mind getting back to pre-recession employment levels.  Most economists, including Dr. Schor, don’t think our economy is going to grow fast enough to provide those jobs.  Therefore, most economists think we’re in for a world of hurt. That’s where Schor parts company with many of her colleagues.  She proposes another solution, which doesn’t require our accustomed 2-4% growth: plenitude.

Simply put, since there’s less work, what if we all worked less?  Uh, but then wouldn’t the economy be less “productive” and wouldn’t our GDP decline.  In short, isn’t this a recipe for disaster? Not necessarily, says Schor.  If we’re working to provide growth for the economy, then yes.  If we’re living to lead more productive, fulfilling lives, then it depends on how you define productive and fulfilling. The business as usual economy defines the Deepwater Horizon spill as “productive.” That’s right, all the economic activity (containment, clean up, etc.) generated from that spill will go down on the national balance sheet as a positive (against lost fisheries and tourist business, to be sure). The business as usual economy doesn’t really define fulfilling, but it does assume that commuting to a job an hour away, or staying at the Bentonville Airport Holiday Inn in order to sell a gross of Veg-o-Matic  Slicers to Walmart must be fulfilling. Otherwise you wouldn’t do it, right? That’s the assumption of classical economics; we’re all little maximum utility optimizers. Problem is, nobody but economists believes this. And even economists have grown skeptical of their own dismal science.

So what’s the alternative? Downsize to upsize. Scale back your work, and some of the useless stuff it buys you; upsize your life, and some of the joy it brings you. But if we all downsize, doesn’t that create a downward spiral of work opportunities?  That depends.  If we replace our consumption of cheap stuff with the pursuit of fulfilling experience, then we’re probably affecting the factory in China more than the musician in Austin. If we’re freed up to pursue more activities (with our extra week day of non-work time) then maybe we’re buying more spruce for the guitar we’re making, or beer for the party we’re throwing, or more legal advice for the small business we’re starting.

Schor hasn’t run the comprehensive micro- and macro-economic models for how all this would work. She’s just provided the vision for plenitude, based on her observations of what millions of people are already doing. But given the predictive track record of economic models, (hello, great recession) maybe we’re better off with the vision.

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