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What Charlie Peters can learn from Jerry Brown; the small-is-beautiful economy.

Arthur Levine, an editor of The Washington Monthly from 1974 to 1975, is an associate editor of U.S. News & World Report.

Last year, America woke up with a hangover. Our profligate ways were coming back to haunt uson several fronts-including the environment, ethics, and the economy-and we didn't like it one bit. Cries for a less materialistic way of life, having long been voiced by The Washington Monthly and other Cassandras, were suddenly being echoed by larger publications: Newsweek, for instance, told us that "The 80s Are Over" and that "Greed Goes Out of Style." Time warned about our "Endangered Earth." The new sensitivity was indeed heartening, but it didn't cut to the heart of the issue: the nation's traditional approach to economic growth can't work anymore-we produce and consume too much that is harmful and unnecessary, and we ought to be considering alternatives to the "more is better" philosophy that undergirds our economy and our lives. We could make the needed changes without dooming ourselves to a bleak, primitive life of bean sprouts and self-denial.

It's not a new message, but it's one we finally ought to start listening to. Since the mid-1960s, a group of mavericks has been warning us about The Limits to Growth and urging us to realize that Small is Beautiful. For the most part, they've been dismissed as cranks and doomsayers. The most sensible of them aren't opposed to a vibrant economy, but they want to make sure that any growth we do experience is ecologically sound and humane.

The Monthly has, at times, talked eloquently about the perils of materialism. Unfortunately, the magazine's admirable values are not likely to be achieved within the vision of economic growth shared, in one form or another, by neoliberals and virtually every other influential voice.

If we're to be less materialistic, to give but one example, it means that we'll buy fewer products and there will be less revenue for business. The hard question that neoliberals and others haven't asked is: Can we have more time for families and volunteerism, less materialism, and still have high economic growth? I don't think so.

It's therefore worth understanding some of the wrong-headed assumptions that prompt us to support the growth economy -no matter what the consequences in our lives. First, economists tend to measure economic health by one indicator, the Gross National Product. But it's simply too vague to be of much use. If I get in a car accident and wreck several other cars, destroy street-lamps, prompt policemen to work overtime, and spend thousands recuperating, it's all considered a net plus for the GNP, Second, the growth advocates believe the economy can grow unimpeded by limits on the environment or resources. But even a moderate 3 percent growth rate (annual rate last year, not counting inflation: 2.8 percent) means doubling production and consumption every 25 years-a prospect that seems particularly grim given the garbage barges, swollen landfills, and poisoned water, air, and land we already face. And third, the "anything goes" approach to growth may worsen the problems-particularly unemployment-it aims to solve. That's because expanding industries are usually accompanied by automation, while the new jobs require more skills or, in the case of the proverbial hamburger-flipper, exist far from the inner cities.

For many Americans, these problems haven't directly affected their lives-yet. But people in the Third World have felt the disastrous effects of largescale projects to promote economic growth. They have seen soil and croplands eroded, forests disappear, and children starve and die, in large part because of wasteful development projects that have also saddled these countries with $1.3 trillion in debt and the resulting drastic cuts in social services.

The growth advocates, naturally, muster a range of arguments. High growth, they say, is necessary to help the poor because, as John Kennedy put it, "A rising tide lifts all boats." Pollution problems can be solved with improved technology and the shift toward a service economy, they say. And, most tellingly, they argue that limits on growth would cost jobs.

But the best rebuttal to the high-growth-solvespoverty argument is. . .the Reagan administration. One growth proponent put it bluntly: "Growth is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable." Without a genuine commitment to help the poor, you won't see progress in any new War on Poverty. Second, new technologies aren't an unalloyed blessing: remember when nuclear power was considered a safe, magical substitute for coal and oil? As for jobs, let's face facts: making reforms could, in some cases, threaten jobs. The central question really is whether to allow 'Job blackmail" or to look instead for new ways to provide work and income. Currently, our entire economy is like one of those pathetic small towns desperate to keep, say, a chemical plant operating regardless of the hazards.

Broader than bananas

Those looking for new ways of doing business propose instead a New Economics, "based on personal development and social justice, the satisfaction of the whole range of human needs, sustainable use of resources [e.g. solar power] and conservation of the environment," as economist Paul Ekins puts it. Yes, it sounds hopelessly idealistic, but given what we have now, it's certainly worth a try.

There are intriguing ways to encourage such new work opportunities. One is job sharing. It has been especially welcomed by women who have kids to raise and yet want to remain active professionals. Job sharing would provide more employment without forcing us to depend on the hazards of untrammeled economic growth. Even if wages fell somewhat with a reduced work week, some people, at least, would welcome more free time. Industries (and unions) resistant to job sharing could try a second provocative approach. Anthony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers' International Union, has called for a "Superfund for Workers" that would acknowledge society's responsibility to displaced workers by paying them their former wages while subsidizing them to go to college.

I'd also be glad to see some sort of minimum guaranteed income. Besides helping the poor, this would free working people to spend less time at traditional jobs, provide more time for volunteer work, leisure, and entrepreneurship, and create the sort of economic leverage that would make today's unattractive jobs more appealing and better paid.

Where would all the new money for these guarantees come from? Some might come from higher taxes on corporate mergers ($25 billion), inheritances ($20 billion), gasoline ($45 billion), luxuries ($10 billion), other fossil fuel use and oil imports ($90 billion), plus beer and wine ($25 billion). This would be coupled with the government saving money by promoting new ways of living and doing business. Among the steps: paying people a small bonus for staying well and requiring insurance coverage for preventive care; ending $10-$15 billion in tax breaks for nuclear power or fossil fuels.

Besides calling for fresh approaches to jobs and income, the New Economic visionaries also support more democratic industries and self-reliant communities. Such initiatives spur productivity. One troubled Minnesota town created 45 new jobs by building a plant to recycle rubber from tires. In the Caribbean island of Dominica, small farmers, backed by groups such as Oxfam America have broadened their crops beyond bananas for exports. They've added to their incomes and reduced their food bills by 30 percent. These are small steps, surely, but they show that communities can increase their self-reliance and raise revenues so they're not dependent on the whims of big corporations. So far, we haven't had the political leadership to articulate the appeal of a New Economy, even though there are millions of people, from laid-off steelworkers to harried managers, who could be stirred by some of these ideas. The Solar Age still awaits its Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or even its Gorbachev, someone to realize that the U.S. economy, too, needs its own perestroika.
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Author:Levine, Arthur
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Mar 1, 1989
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