Doughnut Economics – Quam Oeconomica

The Search for Oeconomica Phase III

The essence of Kate Raworth’s excellent book, Doughnut Economics, is that economics has to move from an understanding of the world in 18thor 19thC terms (based on a mechanical set of analogies) to a 21stC understanding based on how we understand evolution, our knowledge of systems theory and complexity.

Doughnut-Economics

In simple terms, the book suggests, that in order to develop from a perpetual journey to increase GDP and move to a world economy that “Thrives in balance”, we focus on critical issues such as inequality, changes in banking, CO2, new metrics and many other changes via a vast number of small experiments that will, under conditions of complexity, generate changes in our direction and potentially move us from this Phase of our economic experience (Phase II) via a phase transition to another. However, the range of changes that may be needed (this vast number of small experiments) do not appear to be extremely hopeful and each one is tiny compared to the enormous background material in which it exists. Any one may be successful or not and many, if successful together, may generate enough traction to propel society to the phase transition that it needs. However, it, or they, may not!

 

The dynamic set of changes that forged the industrial revolution, the move from a rentier society based around the ownership of land, to a capitalist-driven society based on the ownership of ideas, of speeding up production, of creating demand for goods and services, took on the form of a phase transition (if the continued use of analogies can be permitted). This dramatic change occurred over many years, but traction was firmly in place by the 1830’s in England. Years after this, by the time Karl Marx was writing das Kapital, capitalism had transformed the countries of western Europe and would do the same for the USA and elsewhere. While land remains a high value commodity, the demand for goods and services and the ability to pay for them has transformed most of the world and continues to do so.

 

However, this phase transition (Phase II) remains, even today, in a variety of stages of development. In the USA and western Europe, it is well entrenched. In India and China, it is feverish in its intensity. In sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, it is well hidden. This means that prescriptions for moving beyond this Phase are unclear as different sections of the globe are at such different stages. No mention was made in the book of the Maslow hierarchy (that provides at least some analysis of the individual’s search for sustenance, from meeting purely physical needs to those of mental well-being) and it would be useful to seek some sort of understanding based on regional access to the Phase Transition of the industrial revolution before experimentations can be determined as useful.

 

This is because, while so much attention is given in the media, universities and in books, to the second and third industrial revolutions (supposed to be via computing and then via robotics, AI and bio-engineering), the real focus of Doughnut Economics is beyond this towards a third Phase – a post-capital-only phase. In driving towards that new Phase (if humans are to make it successfully), Doughnut Economics properly focuses on the Georgescu-Roegen notion of entropy being sufficiently understood so that the world  focuses on energy use and utilisation as the crucial underlaying of society, rather than the traditional notion of productivity (the making of goods and services in progressively more ‘economical’ ways). This is right but it is debatable whether this is the prime driver for change, at least from a human viewpoint. Humans exhibit potentially destructive tendencies when caught in a particular way of thinking. Kate Raworth described this in within the book (Easter Island as one example) and it seems that humans need to actually see and feel danger before they react. A good analogy is how the UK reacted to Germany before 1939. Rearmament did not take place until the enemy was rampaging through Europe. Why? Possibly, because the human tendency is not to give up on ways of life (having reached a reasonable plateau) unless forced by external change. Complexity theory would suggest that a plateau of living is only change when externalities require it – with ‘require’ being highly operative.

 

Phase II was driven by, as the book states, the notion of economic gain for those in charge of capital and ideas, focused on the desire of perceived need. This economic gain argument has been transformed over the last 200 years to permeate all of society not just through the notion of GDP at the macroeconomic scale but through accounting at the micro-level. Thus, financialization of the world at both micro- and macro-scales underpin everything that we do. Everything is priced and our utility (our desire for something) is only respected when it has a number against it. Recently, a charity worked out the value we place on parks. This notion of £974 per person per year is then used somehow to justify spending on parklands. The whole notion of natural capital flows from a need to show value of the aspects of life that make life worth living so that even companies and accountants can evaluate them in discounted cash flow techniques. This is where Phase II shows it has conquered the world or it may be showing that Phase II is nearing its end.

 

Changing this is an enormous challenge but Doughnut Economics, while preparing the way, seems to suggest that the world can be redirected by an understanding by economists about how the world is different to their theories and through the use of diagrams.

 

A more detailed analysis of the changes that induced the phase transition in England in the industrial revolution to Phase II would indicate the scale of the challenge now. The doughnut diagram is highly useful and the concepts that underpin Doughnut Economics are highly positive in that they speak in the language of the new century, even if hampered by the limits to our knowledge that such analogies provide.

 

However, if a phase transition in our model of living is required, and the book strongly argues in that way, then we need to assess how this can be done successfully in a world that it markedly at variance region by region and where, as a result, different nations and regions will adopt different attitudes. For example, those countries lower on the Maslow hierarchy (if it or something similar can be utilised on a national scale) will retain their pursuance of basic needs via growth in GDP for far longer than those countries that have reached higher levels of economic maturity, where post-quantitative norms may be considered. If this is the case, and it is highly likely to be, then how do the latter set of nations decide how to remain sufficiently competitive in productive means, assuming that they will not simply give up their desire to at least maintain a level of economic security in a world that will reward economic gains for many years because it is measurable?

 

Doughnut Economics posits, amongst many other things, repeated changes in GDP, up, down, level in no particular order and through a variety of changes in taxation from income and employment to energy usage or externalities. However, different countries will adopt different measures and taxes and there will be a vast range of unintended consequences in such a complex environment that will continue to drag down the impact of the desired moves to a new phase.

 

Of course, we do not even know what a new phase will look like. Doughnut Economics suggests some thoughts on this and they relate to the quality of life beyond the quantity of life that mature economies are building, where, having gained the basics (food, shelter, clothing), we have moved towards the second tier of luxuries (goods and services) and towards Maslow’s higher tiers of self-actualisation (although we would need to see this is national terms rather than individualistic).

 

What can economists and accountants (macro and micro) do for this future? Perhaps the role for such narrow providers of data is disappearing in the same way that the role of horses changed when the motor car appeared. To take us to the next Phase needs a whole new school of thought that understands the different levels of Phase II that has been achieved on a global scale and will address the new mix of qualitative and quantitative requirements of Phase III (against the background of natural resource despoliation and global warming). If the concept of ‘natural capital’ is the last cry of Phase II as an attempt to take a grip of the natural world by the accountants of Phase II, then Phase III has to develop a new breed of expert that can show how humans can retain the dynamism that ‘gain’ provided for many (although by no means all or even the majority) and moves us away from numeric (or financialized) gain towards a qualitative framework, from the historical meaning of economics – the art of managing a household (which, arguably, humans now understand) – to the art of managing quality of life.

 

This is likely to be back to the area of ‘political economics’, the relationship between the production of goods and services and the society within which they are produced and then forward towards an inclusion of the qualitative aspects of life (as individuals and communities) – ‘quam oeconomica’.

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The Strange Death of the Party System (A Siren Call)

In 1935, George Dangerfield published “The Strange Death of Liberal England”. This book has been much discussed recently as it analysed the combination of women’s votes, Ireland and rights for workers and showed how the traditional and paternalistic politics of the world in 1914 and before was radically changed by those events.

One hundred years’ later, and this country (and much of the Western world) has a different problem. Except where a sudden (and usually short-term) issue arises, political parties are progressively being shunned by voters.

As a report in The Spectator showed in September, 2013 (mainly using data from the House of Commons Library report from December, 2012), membership of the traditional political parties has collapsed in the last 50 years – true of all the three, main parties. Only about 1.5% of the electorate are now members of the three, main parties – less than ¼ of the rate that existed in 1964.

This trend seems inexorable and, while it does not portend the end of democracy, it shows that (in the absence of possibly short-lived parties like UKIP in the UK Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Party in Italy) the gap between the political parties and real people grows daily.

Single Issue Politics

Dangerfield’s three shifts in politics that were in place when the First World War struck – Ireland, emancipation for women and workers’ rights – have, progressively and with much work, been largely dealt with. After that, the Second World War saw the forces of fascism and nazi-ism smashed. The end of the Cold War saw the attempt at Communism dismantled (China not representing anything like communism after the death of Mao – or probably before).

The world has new problems but economic prosperity and the global economy have shifted focus. Sure, immigration is a hot topic in the UK and the Scots are understandably excited by the prospect of independence, but, with a seemingly stable revival in economic fortunes, the public is not engaging with politicians – outside of single issues.

The older parties in England especially seem to have no vision of the country they aspire to lead or at least no ability to convey one. This lack of vision has disenchanted those who should be engaged. For others, who are far more focused on short-term economic necessities, politicians long ago lost their interest.

The Sirens (Seirenes) of Civil Society

All this was brought into focus at the ACEVO (Association of Chief Executives in Voluntary Organisations) Leadership Conference on 7th May. With exactly one year to go to the next UK General Election, the conference began with a tour around the electorate from Ben Page, CEO of Ipsos MORI and there were also talks from Nick Hurd, Minister for Civil Society, Lisa Nandy MP, Shadow Minister and John Cruddas MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Head of Labour’s Policy Review.

Understandably, there was indignation from the audience of charity leaders about the Lobbying (Gagging) Bill and Liz Hutchins of Friends of the Earth especially. She claimed that the political parties wanted the restrictions on charity lobbying because they were concerned at the effect that such campaigning has prior to elections. It appears that the pressure groups within Civil Society now have Siren-like qualities and the Gagging Bill was introduced as a sort of earplug with which to render their song silent.

This insight was, for me, a central theme of the day. Politicians tried to assuage such concerns but Sir Stephen Bubb, ACEVO’s CEO, was not so comforted. He was foremost in wanting charities and the sector as a whole to raise its voice.

Now, charities and NGO’s may not be single-issue bodies but they are singular in context to political parties. In a digital age, they also, in some ways, replicate the more focused requirements of the internet – for short stay issues. From discussions that I had with several of the attendees, they have no intention of being silenced as they give voice to people who are otherwise disenfranchised by a system of politics that is too remote and where the “political class” (as John Cruddas himself called it) has fostered that remoteness.

From this conference, a clear message is that political parties are too focused on short-termism and on presenting a wide range of policies that may have engaged fifty years ago but do not now. John Cruddas, who is working to re-energise the Labour programme, pointed to his party’s desire to rid itself of a top-down, centrist mindset that was no longer suited to the 21st Century. In itself, this is fine, but the positive ability to reach out to people with real needs is, perhaps, too great a reach.

Are Charities a sign of a new Politics?

The Lobbying Bill gained most of its publicity as a result of the attempt to gag charities – a ridiculous aspect of the Bill that the Labour Party has promised to revoke. It showed a worry amongst politicians that charities (especially vocal NGO’s like 38 Degrees) offer a voice to people that is being taken very seriously. Amongst the 166,000 registered charities, there are many established to challenge society. Many others see the need to campaign in order to enhance its aims for beneficiaries. The charity sector, despite its quantifiable size relative to the rest of the economy, has a clear voice on many issues but has to fight its way in a society dominated by corporate and public sectors.

It is an understandable situation where politics is dominated by the sectors that seem to dominate our lives economically. We mainly work for the two dominant sectors and receive most of our quantitative benefits from them. Between them, they dominate. The battle between them, as J K Galbraith showed in “The Affluent Society” is between the quantity of life and the quality of life – both required to some limit but where a social balance is needed.

Unfortunately, we all appear to see the debate between public and private sectors as a battle – not as a need for social balance. Libertarians believe that the market economy will meet all requirements – there are others that believe in the ownership of all economic producers by Government. In between, the battle lines persist: private vs public.

However, there is another battle line where charities and NGO’s exist. It is not all about economics – although it is linked. This battle line is about serving those who are not covered by the armies of private or public sector or where the issue is more quality vs quantity. The debate about the future of our habitat – where the eco-warriors exist – is mainly an NGO battle (in the UK at least as Greens have, to date, low votes cast on their behalf despite them being perceived as single issue). Elsewhere, charities run the whole gamut of causes – medical, social, humanitarian, ecological.

It is into this wide range of causes that people may be engaging. In a world where politics is remote and bland, where politicians are not trusted, charities and NGO’s are seen as trustworthy recipients of funding but also as voices. Unlike the sirens, political earplugs will not cause the charities to give up. The word at the ACEVO Conference was the opposite – a louder voice was needed.

It may be that organized groups such as charities and NGO’s (aided by the digital facilities now available – which suit individual issues) will lead to a different type of political environment. Allied to the extraordinary power of economic (quantitative) sectors such as public and private sectors, the sector that represents the quality of life will likely be seen more and more as a real player in the life of politicians. Maybe the so-called Third Sector will get a Minister in the Cabinet; maybe there will be an annual budget for this area – linking the quantity of our lives (measured through GDP – life by numbers) to the quality of all our lives.

 

 

The Big Society – Calculatingly Political

The Big Society is this government’s big idea and is yet another sign that we are not progressing, but, as a nation, de-evolving back into the 19th Century.

It is not because the Big Society is inherently evil – asking serious questions about the role of the individual and society in working together to help each other and balancing one properly against and with the other – but the language and the rationale are two hundred years-old.

Whether it evokes a Samuel Smiles self-help or Quaker bankers like the Gurney family, government Whig or even Tory rhetoric reminds us of the way it was when the state did not get involved and left it to wealthy individuals to “do good”. Ian Hislop’s recent “When Bankers Were Good” on BBC2 was a healthy reminder of how society once relied on the rich to be good. Hislop proposed that the welfare state (begun by Lloyd George and accelerated by Atlee) had changed the rules so that taxation would be used instead of the rich – releasing bankers and the like to spend their money on themselves rather than anyone else. From the USA, individuals like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett show that where Government is smaller, the rich are expected to enlist their wealth to a greater cause. That may now be international rather than just national, and it seems like the banking community has exempted itself from that enlistment, but the theory holds.

David Cameron believes that society can play a larger role in putting together the broken society and that Government should play a lesser one – instead of financing, the state should guide and help. Nick Hurd’s job as Minister for Civil Society becomes more a challenge to the “do good” society to pitch up at a time when national and local government is cutting back furiously on social spending.

But, this challenge requires a complete change in the way society works. Politics and economics in the 20th Century have directed all our attention on to economic growth that has itself been aimed at maximising how we make and buy things (or develop and use services). Economics (based on 19th Century principles around what we can count and how rational people think – a simulation which has been shown to be miserably false) measures goods and services that we (or others from outside the UK) make. As our brains are progressively wired as calculators, so we drive ourselves to buying more because that is how we now work. Now, the newly developed nations such as China, Brazil, India and the rest are rushing in the same direction.

A key question is “how can society redirect itself away from spending all our time and money on things that are measured by GDP towards societal benefits that are not” – as this is what is needed to make the Big Society work. We have to work out what counts – not spend our time buying because we have been conditioned to count.

Abraham Maslow suggested as far back as 1934 that humans operate within a “Hierarchy of Needs” and that we rise up that hierarchy as we become wealthier. At the bottom end we strive for food and shelter; we obtain the things that add to our health and the health of those closest to us; as group animals, we work within groups (first, close and then wider); we develop self-esteem requirements and then what Maslow terms “self-actualisation” – the achievement of our potential.

Maslow’s work was focused on marketing, but we have marketed ourselves into a corner and stunted the “growth” that Maslow identified. The problem is that we have translated this growth into the buying of things that has simulated the provision of self-esteem and esteem from others. The recent riots in London and many other cities in the UK aguably showed that it was not poverty that drove the rioting but a desire for some form of self-esteem derived from the urge to “acquire” things such as designer trainers and other self-esteem “goods”. We have fallen for both the marketing (the spin) which dictates to us that what we count (like shoes or cars) is all there is. Economics has conspired in this – a reliance on 19th Century simulations of the economy where food, shelter and health were still basic needs for most of the economy. Economics has not progressed since that time.

Economic measurement as we know it panders to our desire for things that are easy to count. Governments (short-term thinkers at best – “it’s the economy, stupid”) have not helped to shape thinking away from its judgement that to get elected, it has to show that we are getting richer. But, “richer” means calculatingly richer – the way GDP shows we are richer – not that which really makes us all “richer”, healthier, richer in mind and spirit as well as in monetary terms. We calculate our wealth and governments calculate how to get re-elected. It leaves the concept of a Big Society – where society and the individuals in it is / are required to work to re-shape and repair society – out of our understanding as we can’t calculate its benefits (just as we have difficulty in calculating climate change – part of the same problem) and most of us focus on what we believe are more important – buying stuff.

To respond to the new paradigm, towards a society that will be driven by more than what we can calculate today, is a massive stretch. It means that we will need to measure quality more than quantity (a massive economic problem that econometricians appear unwilling to solve – maybe because they are one of the causes of the problem) and that Governments will need to consider the risks it is willing to take with quality of life rather than something we can count (GDP growth). That willingness requires long-term thinking and changing the minds of the electorate.

Developing a society with real self-esteem and one that generates that sense of belonging and belief in a society rather than just the individual– the Big Society that also takes the burden away from a cash-strapped public sector – is a tough calculation. It requires a major political and economic transformation – throughout society. It won’t be done just by cajoling people to do more. It requires culture change on a massive scale – and a change to our politics and economics and social systems and structures.