22 November 2007

The Lean Economy?

David Fleming, one of my many illustrious predecessors in the role of Green Party Economics Speaker and inventor of the Domestic Tradable Quota, likes to use this phrase to refer to a post-carbon world where we are more careful with things. I dislike the phrase and can't help thinking it displays his cultural origins in the 1950s and probably a mother who saved margarine tubs. I remember clearing out hundreds of these and similar junk when my grandmother moved into a home some years back. Ok they were, in relative terms, highly useful items, and had considerable embodied energy, but in the high-consumption world we live in today they were just pointless clutter.

Perhaps that is partly Fleming's point. In response to a similar concern with ever-increasing consumption that does nothing to add to human happiness I wrote an article called 'Sen and the Art of Market Cycle Maintenance'. It was published in the same issue of the FEASTA Review as Fleming's piece but an editorial decision was taken to retitle it 'The Freedom to be Frugal'. I was distressed by the taming of what I considered a swash-buckling title, but more so because I just don't think leanness or frugality will sell well. The convivial economy is far more appealing, suggesting better relationships, more music and dance and sharing of meals; in short, more fun; less stuff.
The point I was making in my article is a simple one: the relative definition of poverty is itself a contributor to the cycle of economic growth, as it colludes with the advertising industry to persuade us that we are deprived if we do not have the latest consumer gadget. Poverty is measured in terms of lists of consumer goods, ignoring the most important aspects of the deprivation we face as we see our natural world devastated and the quality of food and other essentials deteriorate.
In the Thatcher years leanness was considered a laudable quality of 'efficient' companies, by which was meant companies who had removed as many jobs as possible from their operation and exported the remainder overseas to countries where poverty wages and Dickensian employment conditions are still acceptable.
The private sector was keen to slim itself down; the public sector, where unions were stronger, less so. Modernisation was called in to do battle against flab, leading to the agencification of the civil service and more swingeing destruction of jobs. Even before the disastrous evidence of incompetence emerging from HMRC this week it was obvious that the ever-shrinking number of public employees, downskilled and demoralised, were simply not doing an adequate job. Complex phone-switching routines and elaborate computer systems can never substitute for personal interaction, especially where, as in the case of so many government services, intimate and sensitive issues need to be discussed.
So, while the population grows ever fatter our workplaces are becoming increasingly lean. Could we perhaps suggest a relationship between the two? Might the days spent in lean and fit working conditions lead to such despair that we can find no comfort until we reach the relative safety of our homes to slump onto our sofas with fatty meals and cream buns? Ideas merchant though I am, I don't expect to find myself selling 'frugality' with much enthusiasm. I think have more of an affection for a little bit of slack.

1 comment:

  1. The norm of flat-out full-time work seems to tie people to patterns of consumer behaviour. Locked into 35-50 hours working weeks consumption is an alternative to enjoying leisure time. Despite bluster over flexible working, most full-time workers do not really get the option to say, 'Y'know what, boss, I'll miss a day's pay as some relaxation and fun are worth more to me'. There's no mechanism to do that.

    As the 'chinese price index' is loaded with sweatshop clothing and far-eastern made trinkets the government can say inflation is low, when in the real world people are noticing rampant inflation in everything from food to housing. Indeed, in many areas the purchasing power of a 'housing pound' may have fallen 60% since 1999. Thus we get a picture of people slogging away and struggling to pay for the basics and self-medicating with cheap trinkets to compensate themselves from loss of free time.

    Give people the option to lessen their workloads in exchange for more time at leisure and fruaglity will really sell.