It was a message to warm the heart; a daughter thanking the care worker who took the time to dance with her dementia-suffering dad at the end of each home visit. Little did she realize that this “thanks” also holds the key to breaking our collective obsession with growth-based economics.
Conventional economics describes acts of human kindness in entirely pejorative terms. They are variously classed as unproductive labour or labour that is resistant to productivity gains. The criticism runs across the whole gamut of personal, educational and creative services.
Collectively, economists list these sectors as examples of “Baumol’s cost disease” (after the US economist whose analysis separated the economy into the progressive sector – producing goods – and the stagnant sector – which delivers personal services).
This is a logic which fails to grasp that Shakespeare was never improved by having fewer actors. Patients do not heal quicker with fewer nurses. And well-being isn’t enhanced by reductions in care time.
Show me, slowly, what I only know the limits of
The processes of innovation, mechanization and (now) automation – supposedly at the heart of creative capitalism – have been disconnected from the task of improving the quality (and quantity) of time we have for each other. Instead the stagnant sector is cast as the burden of the progressive sector.
In his book Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson cited a European study claiming that “between 1995 and 2005 … labour productivity in the personal and social services sector declined by 3%… It was the only sector to show negative productivity growth.”
Jackson goes on to outline a different economics that must live within earth’s limits. It is one where repair, reuse, and reduced carbon footprints are at the heart of economic thinking, and where growth and productivity are defined in quality of life terms, not quantity of consumption.
Conventional economics has barely begun this journey. Any economics that defines the time given to human interaction as negative productivity has lost the plot. But this is where we have ended up.
Productivity growth became the high altar of consumer capitalism. And upon this altar all sorts of human values have been sacrificed.
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Right now, if you are lonely or confused, Apple’s Siri can advise and comfort you. Google’s Alexa offers support to breastfeeding mums or can be the evening lifeline for the elderly. Young people can create avatars to “be” them within their social networks or take their place in education seminars. The technologies are doubtless clever and productive, we’ve just ceased to question whether they bring us closer to ourselves or leave us more disconnected.
Modern capitalism has flung society into a crisis that races towards both an ecological and a sociological abyss. The sociological dimension feeds on our insecure addiction to the consumption of “stuff” and upon a propensity to treat the planet as a bottomless pit from which we hoover out all of today’s desires and into which we dump unwanted debris.
Governments have become obsessed with measuring “growth” by the quantity of consumption, and “productivity” by how much more cheaply goods can be supplied. But how then were workers – those producing these goods at lower cost – to afford the “more” that they produced?
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
It was the free-market Right – those most opposed to state intervention and public debt – who sold politicians the “solution” to this conundrum (and delivered the crisis that followed). Their answer was unlimited personal credit and private debt.
Deregulated credit-debt became the weapon of choice in a process that has transferred real wealth from the poor to the rich. It also subtly downgraded people’s birthright identity as “citizens,” replacing it with the inferior status of “consumers” or “customers.”
Consumption has come to define who we are, and what we are worth – enhanced status then being entirely conditional upon an ability to buy.
Our more important dependencies on others – for kindness, laughter, security and recognition – have been progressively replaced by cash transactions. Those without the ability to buy become worth less (a short step from worthless). And those of “value” find their status comes at the cost of making others cheaper.
Little wonder that today, crises of identity, belonging and mental health proliferate. They are the byproducts of an economics intentionally polarizing between the rich and poor, between the productive and the disposable. Those still willing to dance around dementia’s invisible walls make a mockery of where this economics takes you.
Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn
I’ve just finished this piece after an overnight stint in the Nottingham Arts Theatre. In an act of undoubted negative productivity its staff opened their doors to the homeless. Volunteers came in with the snow, bearing gifts of food, tea and time. Irrespective of their age, gender, or race all seemed to be drawn from the stagnant sector of the economy. They represented the compassionate edge of a society that still banks onshore, pays its taxes, and looks after its vulnerable.
In contrast, no matter how productive they might be elsewhere, Siri never turned up at the night shelter to lift a finger. Alexa never served a cup of tea or handed out a blanket. No avatars went out into the snow, fishing rough sleepers out of doorways. All this was done by human beings. Productivity and growth never came into it, just kindness and decency.
This is what tomorrow’s economics must be built around. Those who slept soundly last night, protected from the blizzards outside, may not get much of a say in this revolution in economic thinking, but their plea to the rest of us was no less clear.
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Dance me to the end of love
Alan Simpson is a recovering UK politician who now advises the Labour leadership on energy and climate policy. He lives in an eco-house in Nottingham and is a net supplier of clean electricity to the grid.
Originally published by the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.
Dance me to the end of love is a 1984 song by Leonard Cohen. It was first performed by Cohen on his 1984 album Various Positions.