Ten suggestions to lead a better life without growth (part 2)

In our previous blog post, we took a look at 5 proposals from a feature entitled “A better life without growth” in the French magazine Alternatives économiques aimed at decreasing individual expenses in order to discourage the quest for monetary accumulation. We continue this series by presenting the French monthly’s other 5 suggestions and adapting them to Québec’s situation.

6. Consume more intelligently

To curtail consumption costs whilst still ensuring improved food quality, Alternatives économiques suggests reducing the number of intermediaries between clients and local food producers. Indeed, we must encourage the large-scale implementation of organic baskets and public markets. In addition, collective gardening allows for greater individual autonomy in the face of the food system’s hypercommodification.

Nonetheless, modern life requires consuming much more than just food. A major part of personal income is geared towards buying a myriad of objects which, be they expensive or cheap, have an insignificant lifespan. Yet public authorities have a lever with which they can operate on planned obsolescence. Indeed, Alternatives économiques suggests forcing longer warranties (5 to 10 years) to apply to expensive products. This simple proposal seems like the best protection against ever more widespread built-in obsolescence. So good is the idea that it seems surprising that we don’t hear more about it.

7. Reduce working time

Europe has experimented a lot to reduce unemployment rates and stimulate job creation. At the beginning of the 2000s, Germany reduced its minimum wage to allow companies to hire more employees. As a consequent, the country’s working poor numbers increased. The Netherlands encouraged the development of part-time jobs. In practice, the policy fostered considerable gender inequalities because women are now stuck in part-time jobs whilst men benefit from stable jobs.

France introduced the 35-hour workweek between 1998 and 2002 to spread out the workload. According to Alternatives économiques, it created of 2 million jobs between 1998 and 2001 and increased the overall payroll amount by 20% without lowering companies’ profits. However, this model generated much dissatisfaction amongst disgruntled workers whose income dropped when their workweek went from 40 to 35 hours.

To avoid such problems, the magazine suggests changing the timescale: reducing working time by 10% not on a weekly basis, but over a number of years. Hence, for each 5 years of work, an employee would be granted a 6-month sabbatical leave.  This proposal has the advantage of better responding to the aspirations of workers who would like to travel more or need a bit of a rest, especially as retirement is being pushed back in Canada.

IRIS asks, as does André Gorz: why choose? Why not cut back working time by 10% for everyone and leave it up to companies and their workers to implement it according to their own needs and capabilities? Who cares if it’s by the week, by the month or on a yearly basis?

8. Fight inequalities from below

To bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, Alternatives économiques suggests using taxation: tax the wealthiest to directly improve the lot of the least well off. The idea is far from new and seems hard to implement in Québec, as demonstrated the Parti québécois government last fall. In fact, Statistics Canada’s most recent data clearly shows that the highest earning 1% are bringing in more and more money but paying a diminishing share of taxes.

Alternatives économiques asks if we shouldn’t instead focus on the bottom of the social ladder. IRIS has recently shown that Québec social welfare’s lack of generosity blocked out beneficiaries from the means of getting out of poverty. But where to start? Should we concentrate on welfare, should we go further? In a recently published brochure, our colleague Eve-Lyne Couturier reviewed guaranteed income plans: their main advantage is to benefit everyone whose income is too low to make a decent living.

9. End tax avoidance

In a context of diminished revenue, we cannot allow for the income of the wealthiest to disappear abroad. As a recent collaboration between big media outlets from around the globe revealed, tax havens are a central component of today’s world economy.

According to Revenu Québec, tax avoidance robs the province of $3.5G annually, an imposing number considering its budget. Both Québec and Ottawa have increased efforts to nail culprits, but the priority seems set on catching tobacco smugglers and small restaurant owners. That would be truly worrying. Obviously everyone has to pay their income tax, but isn’t the government of Québec letting the big fish get away by concentrating on catching the smaller ones?

10. Control public spending

As mentioned with regard to healthcare in the previous post, if revenues stagnate, public spending cannot increase too quickly. Alternatives économiques is far from promoting austerity, but it maintains that certain government expenditure items should be reviewed.

In Québec, new public administration policies significantly increase surveillance and index production structures. As public entities freeze hiring staff responsible for offering services, they employ a greater number of managers to measure what the former do. This is where obsessing over management leads to: forgotten public service primary mandates and increased public spending.

Alternatives économiques tackles the issue of French spending in national defence, which also arises in Canada. Is foreign military intervention the priority? Investing in expensive war equipment is even harder to justify when facing the perspective of degrowth and stagnation than it is in a period of growth. If on top of that investments come with an aura of waste and scandal, they become simply indecent.

Conclusion

All in all, there is no shortage of ideas: we can definitely think outside the box of growth. Obviously, the preceding suggestions are for the most part little explored research avenues. We stand to gain much from discovering them more. This perspective allows us to start thinking without growth, and that’s what’s most important. It removes the old ‘continual growth of income’ reflex when conceiving and evaluating public policies. That’s certainly more easily said than done, but if we start now, we just might eventually get used to it.

This article was written by Simon Tremblay-Pepin and Bertrand Schepper, researchers with IRIS—a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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