Transforming the Global Economy: Solutions for a Sustainable World
The Schumacher lecture
The current financial crisis provides the ideal opportunity to implement tax reforms that would finance the conversion to eco-friendly industry: an environmental Keynesianism that would pull the world out of economic ruin and social chaos while getting the runaway global financial system under control, argues Susan George.
The Schumacher lectures are traditionally held in
Please first let me congratulate the organisers of Schumacher North for their initiative in bringing this lecture series and other activities of the Schumacher Society to
But I intend to try. My talk today will concern the stage I’ve arrived at in a kind of reflexion in progress—I don’t mean a book, although it may well become that as well—but an effort to make sense of the fast moving events in our battered world and an attempt to think about them in a more unified way.
Philosophically speaking, the thing-in-itself, the isolated object whether it’s an electron, a human cell, an organism, a single word —even a human being--makes sense only in the context of its relationships, its place in its physical, linguistic or social environment . Margaret Thatcher once famously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She thus perfectly embodied the foundations of the neo-liberal ideological programme which should, ideally, prevent us from even thinking about ourselves and others in our natural and social context. We must be taught to believe that we are not citizens or members of a social body but discrete, individual consumers. We are entirely responsible for our own destinies and if we fall by the wayside for whatever reason—illness, job loss, accident, failure, whatever—it’s our own fault. We should have foreseen the case and planned for it. We have no responsibility for other people either. Solidarity is a banished word. Nor are we accountable for the state of the planet—homo sapiens is the only important species and humans are isolated if not immune from natural, physical laws. That’s the essence of the neo-liberal spirit: “You’re on your own” as Barack Obama has been saying to Americans to encapsulate the philosophy of his opponents.
If you are well-schooled in neo-liberalism, you will never join a social movement, never engage in a struggle against an unjust action of the government, never contribute to an effort to protect the natural world because not only will you make a fool of yourself, not only will your effort fail, but even if successful it will lead eventually to oppression, even totalitarianism, as Thatcher’s mentor Professor Friedrich von Hayek argued. And, as he also taught, economic freedom is superior to every other kind of freedom, whether political, religious or intellectual.
I believe to the contrary that our only hope lies in understanding everything we confront today as a link in an ever-more-complex chain, as an element in a system. The danger with this approach of course is to become lost and frustrated in the syndrome of “Everything is connected to everything”. That’s true, everything is connected to everything, but we still have an enormous task ahead in trying to identify the priority connections, to understand how they work together and what we can do to change them, because they definitely do need changing. I will argue that the present connections are dysfunctional, they have become perverse: they form a system that worsens the human condition and irrevocably damages the planet. But there is hope, because what has been constructed by humans can also be dismantled by them.
All this may sound rather vague so let’s get down to specifics. To make matters more concrete, I’d like to talk now about the most obvious crises we face collectively today, why they are all linked and why the solutions to them must be linked as well.
The first of these crises is social—the crisis of mass poverty and growing inequality within individual countries and between the rich and poor countries. The second is the financial crisis that Wall Street, the City and the public authorities refused to see coming because they were living in bubble-land. It began with the subprime affair in the
Each of these crises—social, financial, environmental--is negatively linked to the others, they intensify each other with negative feedback; they lead to worst-case scenarios. Let us take just a few examples of these perverse interactions.
The poverty-inequality crisis is a good place to start. This crisis is well documented; no one seriously denies the numbers. The World Bank recently recognised that it had grossly underestimated—by about 400 million—the numbers of the very poor, and even then its figures stop at the year 2005 and don’t include recent upheavals in food and energy costs that have swelled the ranks of the impoverished. Even more important, however, is the fact that for the first time in human history, there is no excuse for mass poverty and deprivation. Taking this assertion seriously already helps to point us towards a solution.
Most scholars and institutions concerned with such issues focus on poverty per se but I think it’s more useful and enlightening to focus on wealth. It may not be obvious to everyone that the world is actually awash in money. Most of it is still in North America and
How many of you knew that ten million people, according to the latest Merrill-Lynch World Wealth Report, together boast investable, liquid funds of more than $40 trillion? That’s 40.000 billion or 40 followed by 12 zeroes. This wealth is above and beyond the value of their houses, cars, yachts, wine or art collections and so on and it is equivalent to about three times the GDP of either the
We also know a great deal about inequality. The UN World Institute for Development Economic Research, WIDER, estimates total world household assets at about $125 trillion. This is about three times world GDP and unsurprisingly, the top two percent of the world captures more than half of that wealth. The top 10 percent, which certainly includes many of us here, hold 85 percent, while the bottom half of humanity is obliged to stumble along with barely 1 percent. All you need to be classed in the top half of humanity is a meagre $2200 in total assets—that includes your house, your land or items like your car or your refrigerator--hardly a princely sum. If all household assets were divided equally—impossible and probably not even desirable to achieve—everyone on earth could have a share of $26.000. So again, money as such isn’t the problem.
In all the countries where 90 percent of the world’s population lives, inequalities have increased especially since the 1980s. At this point in the argument, the neo-liberals usually jump in to remind us that rising tides lifting all boats. They admit that inequalities have grown, but still argue that the poor are better off than they were. It seems almost rude to remind them in turn that falling tides have the opposite effect, they swamp and strand the more fragile boats and that is where the tide of the financial crisis is now taking us.
The real point, however, is not the absolute numbers but the fact that inequality makes the economy and also the natural environment worse for everyone, rich or poor. Two experienced academics, Tony Addison and Giovanni Andrea Cornia, put it this way: “Inequality has risen in many countries over the last two decades [and] little progress can be made in poverty reduction when inequality is high and rising....Contrary to earlier theories of development, high inequality tends to reduce economic growth and therefore poverty reduction through growth.”
Although it’s true that economic growth has reduced poverty, particularly in
We have also learned in the past few months that it is entirely possible to push tens of millions of poor people off the ledge where they had just gained a foothold and send them back into the depths of poverty. Food riots, most of them urban, in at least thirty different countries have revealed another scary new phenomenon: the worldwide food crisis. Until now, food shortages and famines tended to be local, but so many societies have accepted neo-liberal trade mantras and become dependent on world markets for their basic daily staples that today a sudden spurt in prices is felt from
The neo-liberal institutions like the World Bank, the WTO and the European Commission continue to pretend that poverty reduction will result from more growth and more trade. They fail to mention that both growth and trade will reinforce the environmental crisis. The food and energy crises have in turn strong links to the financial crisis, since speculation has been an important factor in both. Food and energy are also intimately linked to the climate crisis as one can see instantly when one thinks of carbon-loaded fossil fuels or of agro-fuels taking vast amounts of land away from food production.
At this point in the discussion, especially when one is speaking to concerned, engaged, decent people like those likely to be found at a Schumacher lecture, someone will raise two highly pertinent questions. The first is this: “ Isn’t there a point where people with huge fortunes say ‘enough is enough’ and start sharing?” Some do—Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are oft- cited examples. But as a class, I’m sorry to say that the answer is no. We know a lot about poverty lines but there is no such thing as a wealth line and the word “ enough “ is not part of the vocabulary of this class. You needn’t believe me. Listen to the expert who said “All for ourselves and nothing for other people seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” That was not Karl Marx but Adam Smith, in his classic 1776 treatise on capitalism, the Wealth of Nations. Little has changed since then.
The second question is “But why don’t the neo-liberal institutions, like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the European Commission and the
To the contrary, they have produced exactly the results they were intended to produce. They have made a tiny fraction of international society rich beyond imagining, they have kept many dependent countries dependent in a new, less visible sort of colonial relationship and they have made so-called free trade, privatisation and unfettered capitalism the rule in countries that previously wanted little or nothing to do with them. Furthermore, they have imposed their policies with relatively little organised protest because their ideology has been expertly produced, packaged and delivered. Ideology can alas have a far stronger influence than facts. This is why we must fight on the practical front, of course, but also -- I happen to believe primarily -- fight the battle of ideas.
In any event, the massive funds belonging to rich people who already have most of the material goods they need or want are generally devoted to more or less speculative investments. Hedge funds, for example, are estimated to be sitting on about three trillion dollars, even today when so many investments have suffered melt-down. The financial institutions have been frantically innovating, particularly over the last decade. The entire incentive structure of the banking and finance industry has become perverse: the large institutions know perfectly well that they are “too big to fail”, consequently they also know that no matter how risky their actions, they will be bailed out by the public purse and has become all too plain. Beforehand, top management takes the money and runs.
Between the years 2000 and 2006, average annual profits of the financial sector in Great Britain averaged 20 percent—that is, two or three times the profit rate of other sectors of the economy. Huge bonuses, especially in the
Now that the bailouts are coming thick and fast, we have before us a singular example of socialism for the rich, the well-connected and Wall Street, in which the profits are grabbed by the usual suspects and the losses, tremendous losses, are billed to taxpayers. The
As the sub-prime crisis has continued to ooze like a giant oil spill over the whole economy, speculators have searched for alternative profitable areas and created the food-price bubble trouble in which we now find ourselves. What happens then? The resource-poor, the world’s hungry, grab whatever they can, they chop down trees, kill animals and overexploit what little land they may have. Poverty is bad news for nature. But so is wealth. Even though there are far fewer of them, the rich cause much greater environmental damage with their dinosaurian ecological footprints. People who use the population argument to explain the multiple crises and who see in population control the solution are missing a crucial point—it’s not so much the number of people, although numbers are important, as their relative weight.
Furthermore, as we have repeatedly witnessed, the frequency and the fury of storms provoked by global warming hit the poor and the poorer regions of the globe hardest. There is worse to come. We have not even begun to comprehend the perils of climate change, including vastly increased numbers of environmental refugees who will crowd the planet due to droughts, flooding and crop failures. The Pentagon is already working on how to stem this tide by countering by whatever means necessary the refugees frantic efforts to reach more favourable lands. Government planning for this perfectly predictable phenomenon is limited to increased surveillance and security responses, not attempts to make outmigration less necessary. And yet the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] which is probably the most respected scientific body in the world, has already warned us that in Africa, the yields of rain-fed agriculture are likely to be reduced by 50 percent, deserts will gain ground, species destruction has already reached such proportions that we are in the midst of the sixth geological extinction of the planet’s four and a half billion-year history. The fifth extinction was the one that put paid to the dinosaurs.
I could go on drawing out relationships between the poverty, financial and ecological crises but I’m sure you need no more. The question is what we can do about all this and by “we” , I mean people everywhere who understand that the triple crisis is real and urgent.
Knowing that I will doubtless offend a great many people here, let me say straight away that there is an exit strategy, a genuine solution exists, but it is not in my view the one that many well-meaning environmentalists have long advocated. I’m sorry, but the time has passed for telling people to change their behaviour and their lightbulbs; that if enough people do this, then together “we” can save the planet. I’m sorry, but “we” can’t. Obviously I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t change their behaviour and their lightbulbs—but even if the entire population of
We need large-scale solutions, sophisticated, industrial solutions and huge involvement of governments in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically enough to save our future. In other words, we must have the courage to challenge not just our political leadership but the entire neo-liberal, unregulated, privatised, capitalist economic system in place in order to provoke and promote a quantitative and qualitative leap in the scale of environmental action. Dare I say it here? Sometimes big can be beautiful and right now is one of those times.
Since I believe that individual and local solutions are necessary but tragically insufficient to address the seriousness and the urgency of the ecological crisis, I will use the rest of my time to discuss the twin problems of how to deal with governments and with the capitalist corporate production and financial system. The dilemma I wrestle with is this: Can we save the planet while international capitalism remains the dominant system, with its focus on profit, share-holder value, predatory resource capture and with no-holds-barred finance capital making more and more decisions? Can we rescue our natural home when confronted with a powerful caste that does not know the meaning of “enough” and is allergic to the kind of fundamental change a New Ecological Economic Order requires? Can we move forward when governments basically work for the interests of that class?
On bad days I reply No: We can’t save the planet. It’s impossible to reverse the climate crisis under capitalism. But that is a despairing answer and if true, it means there is virtually no hope. No hope, because I do not see how even the most convinced, most determined people could replace, much less overthrow capitalism fast enough to carry out the necessary systemic change before a runaway climate effect takes hold—always assuming it hasn’t done so already. First of all, there are not that many convinced and determined people prepared to act against the dominant economic system and there is nothing that resembles in the smallest degree an avant-garde revolutionary party that might lead them even if they existed. There is no one-size-fits-all replacement solution for capitalism. Considering the historical record and role of such parties and such solutions, I consider this an unmistakably good thing.
But there are other obstacles to once-for-all revolutionary change. Nobody knows, figuratively speaking, who the Tsar is that we would have to overthrow today and nobody has a clue where to find the Winter Palace we would have to storm. We know the
The question we face is not so much what to do — I think that is reasonably clear and I’m about to spell it out--but whether we will have the intelligence and the strength to seize the great opportunity with which we are now presented. Perhaps the words “great opportunity” strike you as wildly optimistic considering the long and dire preamble you’ve just listened to. However, I am now going to argue that not only are individual solutions insufficient but that the remedies offered by Kyoto, Bali, Bonn or whatever timid future agreements may be negotiated are tragically inadequate, Once more--I cannot stress this enough--the scale is crucial. And the great opportunity is to be found in the financial crisis itself. Properly targeted and used, it could open the door to the quantitative and qualitative leap we must make.
Some progressive people will reject the solution I propose, but I would then ask them what alternative they offer. The ecological crisis is of a different nature from the financial and poverty crises in the sense that once climate change is underway, as it is now, it is irreversible and we haven’t time for theoretically perfect solutions. With politics you can sometimes turn back and start over, but not where nature is concerned. So you can accuse me if you like of suggesting a way to give capitalism a new lease on life and I will plead guilty.
Let’s take first the slightly easier question “How can we deal with governments?” at least in the more or less democratic countries.
This means that citizens, activists and experts, whether they like it or not, have got to work with local, regional and national politicians and governments; help them to find like-minded partners and formulate ambitious projects they can undertake on the broadest possible scale. Citizens, activists and experts must furthermore help these politicians and governments to become shining ecological examples with the electorate by publicising their efforts and their successes. Could the Schumacher Society become a kind of nexus for an ongoing forum of best-standards/best practice, bringing together political decision makers at every level with citizens groups and experts to discuss and carry out the best public-sector initiatives? Politicians must be convinced that these policies will not just work but also be highly popular with their constituencies.
Now let’s take the more difficult question of confronting the economic system as a whole. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond examines several historical cases of social extinction due to over-exploitation of the environment. He identifies several common characteristics. One of these is the isolation of the elites, giving them the capacity to keep on consuming way above ecologically sustainable limits long after the crisis has already struck the poorer, more vulnerable members of society. That is where we are now globally, not just in isolated places like Easter Island or
So how can we realistically combat the ecological footprints of our dinosaur elites, recognising that we don’t have the option of shouting “Off with their heads” in some imagined, world-wide revolution. Nor can we force them to change both themselves and the system that serves them so well, whereas we know that we must change that system because it is raping the planet and its inherent logic is to keep on doing so.
I can see only one way out: the coming together of people, business and government in a new incarnation of the Keynesian war economy strategy. I was born in the
Yes, there were still worker-management conflicts and yes, big corporations rather than small business got most of the government contracts but on the whole the workers were well paid, African-Americans and women began making a few modest gains and the whole war effort finally pulled the
Why am I going back over this ancient history? Because I think we have a similar opportunity today. The
The way Central Banks and Treasuries usually try to solve financial recession or depression is through standard remedies like interest rate cuts, currency devaluations or incurring new debt—but the United States has reached the end of its leash on that score. Interest rates are already extremely low—although not in
Since the traditional tools are worn out, the only new tool I can think of to pull the world out economic ruin and social chaos is a new Keynesianism, not military this time, but environmental; a push for massive investment in energy conversion, eco-friendly industry, new materials, efficient public transport; the green construction industry and so on.
Stringent standards for new buildings must become the norm; older ones can be “retro-fitted” on easy financial terms; families and commercial property-owners can receive financial incentives for installing green roofs and solar panels and sell excess energy to the grid. Research and development can be oriented towards alternative energies and strong, ultra-light materials for airplanes and vehicles. Technically speaking, we already know how to do such things, although some clean solutions are still more costly than dirty ones. Mass-produced, they would become less so.
All these new, eco-friendly industries, products and processes would have huge export value and could quickly become the world standard. I am trying to describe a scenario that can be sold to the elites because I don’t think they will embrace genuine environmental values and conversion if there’s nothing in it for them. But this approach is not merely a cynical attempt to get the elites to move in their own interests. There are also plenty of advantages in such an economy for working people. A huge ecological conversion is a job for a high-tech, high-skills, high-productivity, high-employment society. It would be supported, I believe, by the entire population because it would mean not just a better, cleaner, healthier, more climate-friendly environment, but also full employment, better wages, and new skills, as well as a humanitarian purpose and an ethical justification—just like World War II.
How could one finance such a huge effort? It would have to involve targeted government spending in the traditional Keynesian sense and governments are bound to complain that they haven’t the means to carry out such a policy.
The financial crisis provides the ideal opportunity both to finance the conversion and to get the runaway global financial system under control.
At present, taxes almost always stop at national borders. The secret is to take taxes up to the European level and to the international one through currency and other financial transaction taxes. People who oppose such schemes pretend they are not feasible because one would need to obtain the consent of every national jurisdiction in the world, but that is not correct. In fact, currency and other transaction taxes would require nothing more than political determination, the cooperation of the Central Bank and a few lines of software. For the currency transaction tax first proposed by James Tobin in the 1970s and now considerably refined, the tax base is the currency itself, not the place it’s traded. Thus the European Central Bank could easily collect the taxes on any transactions involving euros, the Bank of England the same for the pound, the Fed for the dollar and so on. Since currency trades now amount to $3.2 trillion dollars every day, a tax of one basis point, that is, a levy of one per thousand could raise a tidy sum for ecological conversion and poverty reduction.
Carbon taxes are another much mooted and equally feasible idea. So is a unitary profits tax on transnational corporations, which would require knowing the total sales of the company, the total taxes paid, the sales realised in each jurisdiction and the tax paid in each jurisdiction. If, for example, a TNC reported that in country X, a particularly low-tax jurisdiction, it made 5 percent of its sales yet paid 50 percent of its taxes, the authorities would find it a bit fishy. I’m presenting an extremely crude summary here but believe me, there are experts—bankers, corporate lawyers, fiscal experts and accountants--who know exactly how to do such things. Perhaps to encourage more local consumption, one could also think about taxing the miles travelled by the food we eat and the clothes we wear.
We would not forget the poor countries of the South which are the major terrain of the poverty crisis. Debt cancellation for poor countries that the G-8 has been promising for a decade must finally happen but against the requirement that these countries also contribute to the planetary environmental effort through re-forestation, soil conservation, species protection and the like. They would also be required to involve their own people in democratic decision-making and the funds would be carefully monitored by independent auditors.
Tax havens that allow affluent individuals and corporations to avoid paying their fair share of the conversion should be shut down: it would be cheaper to pay the inhabitants of the Cayman Islands,
In exchange for their bailouts, the banks and investment houses have to accept regulation—not just regulations to insure transparency and eliminate the incentives for stupid behaviour but also more stringent ones forcing them to participate in the ecological offensive. They should be obliged to devote X percent of their loan portfolios to eco-projects at below market interest rates—which they could make up by charging much higher rates on loans to dirty or otherwise anti-ecological projects. Low or no-cost financing for home conversion projects should be another compulsory priority for banks. This could give a huge spurt to the construction industry.
Nobody is asking for the moon here. Banks would still make loans, finance investments and earn a fair return for their services. Taxes on currency transactions at one basis point are not going to ruin anyone. Unitary profits taxes on large corporations would simply return us to the era when the companies paid their taxes because they couldn’t avoid them. The point is that a Keynesian taxation and redistribution system would be invested, nationally and internationally, both ecologically and socially, in education, health care, clean, green energy, efficient water distribution, communications technology, public transport, and various other things the world needs and that we already know how to do. These measures would, in turn go a very long way to creating opportunities for far more people to participate in the new green economy through jobs, life-long education, more social protection and reduced inequality. Getting the present financial crisis-producing, free-flowing, unregulated financial system under public and citizen control is the prerequisite for solving both the environmental and the poverty crises.
In other words, it’s a Public Relations dream. Whichever political parties understand this can win on such a programme without anyone having to bring down the entire capitalist system as a prior condition for saving the planet.
A Keynesian ecological programme would furthermore bring many constituencies together in a common cause. As matters now stand, politically speaking, no single interest group can solve the problem that concerns it most. By this I mean that, by themselves, ecologists can't save the environment; farmers alone can’t save family farms; trade unions alone can’t save well-paid jobs in industry and so on. Broad alliances are the only way to go, the only strategy that pays. The Global Justice Movement, as international social activists call it, has begun to have some success in working democratically and making alliances with partners who come from different constituencies but are basically on the same wavelength.
Now we must go beyond this stage and attempt something more difficult: to forge alliances also with people we don't necessarily agree with on quite major questions—for example, with business. This can only be accomplished by recognising that disagreements, even conflicts, can be fruitful and positive so long as the areas where it is possible to agree are sought out, identified and built upon. We must find where the circles of our concerns overlap. At least one of those overlaps ought to be saving our common home. I don't see any other way of generating citizen enthusiasm, involvement and the qualitative and quantitative leap in scale that is now required.
I haven’t time to elaborate on all the technical details concerning the content and the financing of necessary environmental investments. What I can do is guarantee you that the conversion to a green economy is technically feasible. The schemes for new taxes have been thought through; the industrial prototypes already exist; the machinery is ready to hum into action the moment people can make their politicians accept the challenge. Getting the financial system under control and taxing international capital at quite ridiculously low rates in order to redistribute it institutionally and internationally would be enormously popular. We could seriously attack climate change and eliminate the worst of world poverty within a decade. We are talking politics, not technical aspects here and trying to figure out a way to tame the raging beast, the crisis-producing, free-flowing, unregulated financial system and putting it under public and citizen control.
Capitalism is not sane in the sense that most people understand sanity. We humans normally think about our future, that of our children and the future of our countries and the world. The market, on the contrary, operates in the eternal present which, by definition, cannot even entertain the notion of the future and therefore excludes safeguards against future, looming destruction unless these safeguards are imposed upon it by law.
We need law, for sure, and political forces with the backbone to propose and to vote the law into existence, but we also need to think about human motivation. Remember the prestigious Dollar-a-Year Men of the 1940s and imagine what might happen if we could transpose them into the world of 21st century capitalism. A significant number of contemporary captains of capitalism, all of them with bloated, unimaginable salaries, might be brought to believe that money is all very well, but is there nothing more? Why not found an extremely exclusive Order of the Earth Defenders, or the Environmental Knights or the Carbon Conquerors who alone, in recognition of their special contributions to the national and international environmental conversion effort. They would have the right to display a highly visible emblem on a banner in front of their homes; a fanion on their cars, a green and gold rosette in their buttonholes like the French Legion d’Honneur or a Congressional Medal of Ecological Honour. They would belong to the small assembly of the anointed; those who provide the means and have the honour of saving the earth. Becoming a member ought to appeal to their competitive spirit.
In conclusion, let me say that myth has always been the driving force of every great human achievement, from Greek democracy to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions. So must it be in the coming age of Ecological Stewardship. To save the planet, we must change, quickly and profoundly, the way the majority thinks and feels and acts, and we must start with the social forces we have right here and right now, and no others. It’s no use wishing they were different ones or stronger, or wiser. We must play the hand history deals us.
For such a change, we will need six “Ms”, starting with Money, Management and Media. But even more important than these three “Ms”, we must try to create a new sense of
And wouldn’t that be nicer than having another war?
Susan George is Chair of the Board of the Transnational Institute. Her latest books are Hijacking America: How the religious and secular right changed what Americans think , and We the peoples of Europe.