However much we disagree on how to achieve it, politicians promise the same thing – an economy that grows and grows forever. Jill Segger doesn’t buy it
We do not live by bread alone, nor can we live without it. Jesus’ words are a call to balance and consideration of our priorities. Discussions on economic growth – often conducted by people who have never lived in close proximity to the breadline – sometimes overlook this.
As populations grow, the resources needed to sustain their lives also increase. However, the idea that constantly expanding economies are the only way to give people secure and fulfilling lives means that generating resources has become more important than how they are distributed and used.
The consensus that ever rising GDP is essential for national morale was well established in our culture long before the crash of 2008 and the consequent “austerity” regime. Each generation of the post-war years assumed that their lives and those of their children would be a journey through rising levels of prosperity.
This view is deeply entrenched. The belief that living standards – as measured by consumerist indices – will inevitably rise for the industrious and that poverty is therefore a moral failure, is exploited by politicians of all persuasions. “Hard working families”, “people with aspirations”, “alarm-clock Britain” – the lexicon resonates with an anxious and increasingly insecure middle-Britain. So do the antonyms which appeal to something less admirable in our natures: “Shirkers”, “scroungers”, “people with their curtains drawn”. This binary, divisive and damaging simplification can only be challenged if we are willing to move away from the thinking and attitudes which caused it in the first place.
A redistributive and sustainable economy which shared out its GDP among more people and which redirected a larger proportion of national wealth towards caring for the vulnerable would reduce conflict and enable a higher degree of well-being. This is not impossible, but it will require some radical self-examination and questioning of long-held assumptions.
We might start with the related ideas that worth is directly proportional to possessions and that “getting on” has greater significance and acceptability than working with integrity and a sense of proportion. The man or woman who “fills the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of distance run” but does not aspire to the board, preferring instead to have time for family, friends and recreation at the end of a working day, should not be thought of as less worthy than their more ambitious or entrepreneurial colleagues. We need people who are willing to work long hours to innovate and create jobs, but we must not let ourselves be drawn into the illusion that this is the only way or that those for whom the quality of a life is at least as important as its material quantity are not pulling their weight.
If people are to be enabled to contribute to both the common good and their own development in a wider sense than is currently understood, the inequalities which disfigure our society must be changed. Redistributive taxation – an idea not confined to income tax – is an essential tool. The work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, described in their book The Spirit Level, has established beyond doubt that unequal societies have a higher degree of sickness, crime and family dysfunction. Where there is little shared experience, society does not cohere. The chief executive of a FTSE 100 company and the casual contract employee who cleans his office may, at different stages of a day, move through the same space, but they do not inhabit the same country of lived experience.
Replacing the minimum wage with a living wage would also make a significant difference. Far too many workers rely on in-work benefits to keep their families, and the constant fear that the end of the money will come before the end of the week damages mental health and undermines relationships. But perhaps the economic downturn could stimulate a more radical idea still: the basic or guaranteed income. This is a salary which the state pays to every citizen. It is set at a level sufficient to sustain a modest standard of living but prescribes no activity in return.
This begins to make sense when we consider how much we lose, both in pragmatic and ethical terms, by trapping people in the strain of long hours and inadequately paid work. Sickness, anger, frustration and despair cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. When the guaranteed income was trialled in Canada during the 1970s, it reduced overall poverty and the benefits required to ameliorate that need. It also brought about an 8.5% reduction in hospital admissions.
A minimum income guarantee which replaced benefits, means testing and coercive schemes such as workfare, could be paid for by reducing the administrative requirements of means tests and scrapping or reducing the personal income tax allowance. Financing a more creative and liberating approach to sharing our national wealth would also benefit from closing tax loopholes, taxing the wealthiest at a just rate, reconsidering the £100bn vanity project of Trident and implementing the financial transaction or “Robin Hood” tax.
Most people would want to earn more than the minimum income and would be willing work for it, making job-sharing and part time work economically viable choices. More work opportunities would therefore be available for those who wanted them, while the removal of necessity would free people to volunteer, be carers, write poetry, reflect and offer new challenges and benefits to themselves and society. That many will react with angry accusations of state-sponsored idleness perhaps illustrates how far down a road of utilitarian materialism we have travelled. Not all that is of value can be measured on a spreadsheet.
Faith bodies are well placed to lead this conversation. We have both economists and prophets among us: perhaps it is time to consider the Martha/Mary dichotomy and its meaning for the material, intellectual and spiritual health of our own time.
Jill Segger is a Quaker and an associate director of the Ekklesia thinktank
This article was published in the May 2013 edition of Reform.