Rethinking the economy so that we can have life to the full

Were we ever meant to be unthinking cogs in the industrial machine? Until now, we have quietly watched how the underlying assumptions behind our economy often result in unsustainability and inequality.

Oct 09, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
Were we ever meant to be unthinking cogs in the industrial machine? Until now, we have quietly watched how the underlying assumptions behind our economy often result in unsustainability and inequality. The assumption that a multitude of people, selfishly seeking their individual self-interests (accumulation of wealth), and a host of corporations hungrily looking to maximise their shareholders' returns, can somehow result in the common good, is now seen for what it is - a delusion.

Relentless profit maximisation, unsustainable economic growth, and a largely unrestricted financial sector, not to mention rampant corruption, have resulted in depleted natural resources, growing income inequality and the undermining of the social security system.

Increasingly, public assets are handed over to the private sector for them to reap private profits. The latest is the parcelling of the sea for land reclamation and property development, which will invariably further cater to the well heeled.

The reliance on fossil fuel and the relentless expansion of industrial capacity have both contributed to rising emissions of greenhouse gases and climate change.

So, what do we do? How can we work towards a more just and sustainable economy?

Perhaps, for a start, we should reassess some of the premises that we take for granted.

Interdependence, not survival of the fittest We have to look into the concerns of the most vulnerable segments of society – the indigenous people in the forests and interior areas, the sick , people with disabilities, senior citizens and low-income retirees, the unemployed, the refugees and the stateless people.

We should bear in mind that children from wealthy families are likely to have a head-start in early education, access to higher quality education in private schools and then on to blue-chip universities, which will gain them access to higher-paying jobs.

So, our starting point should be serious investment in public education, health care and low-cost housing — if we are serious about narrowing economic inequality.

Ordinary people’s well being should be the overriding consideration — not the level of corporate profits or the stock market index
Have corporate profits come at the expense of low-wage workers who have to work long hours? Have we considered the real cost of manufacturing operations — the environmental degradation, pollution and the depletion of natural resources?

Francis, the Bishop of Rome, has noted:

“One of the aspects of today’s economic system is the exploitation of international disequilibrium in labour costs, which relies on billions of people living on less than two dollars a day.

“Such an imbalance not only disrespects the dignity of those who supply cheap labour, it also destroys the sources of employment in those regions where it ought to be protected.”

Apart from introducing a more realistic minimum wage, corporations should also be required to factor in the full cost of the natural resources they deplete and the subsequent impact on society. For example, a forest should not be seen as a free source of raw materials to be harvested. Instead, it should be regarded as a valuable public asset , the loss of which would affect surrounding areas and communities.

Participatory decision making in investment decisions
At present, federal and state leaders are focussed on driving their figures for foreign and domestic direct investment.

But are these investments geared towards areas that will have a beneficial impact on the ordinary people? Or will they result in pollution, toxic waste, depleting natural resources and the continued reliance on cheap labour?

We need to have more people involved in the decision-making process, to objectively and expertly assess the type of investments and the areas in which they will give the best results. For this, we need participatory decision-making at all levels, especially at the local level (the principle of Subsidiarity in Catholic Social Teaching).

If we had greater participatory decision-making, we would be investing in areas that are important e.g. public schools, general hospitals and government clinics and better public transport (the promotion of the Common Good, another basic principle of CST). Investments in these areas will result in more jobs. It is not true that only FDI can create jobs.

To facilitate wider public participation in decision making, we need to promote a people's democracy at all levels, not a corporate democracy or an elite/crony-dominated democracy.

Policies are needed to promote a fairer distribution of the fruit of the economy
Economic growth per se is not the panacea to uplift the lot of the ordinary people. If relentless economic growth is so good, why is it that after so many years of growth, people do not feel that they are significantly better off and able to live with dignity?

The problem is that much of the wealth derived from economic growth appears to be concentrated in fewer hands.

We need a more progressive taxation system and policies that uplift and empower those who most need a helping hand.

We should also think about “investing” in the arts/ education/ music to ensure that our progress is more rounded. This will help to counter the pervasive corporate-promoted consumerist ideology that has penetrated even the arts, sports, and education.

So far, the Church has stood as a bulwark against corporate advertising; long may this continue. We should strive to protect Church premises and institutions from the relentless bombardment and encroachment by corporate media propaganda.

These are just some thoughts about how we can counter the damaging, dominant assumptions that have resulted in so much inequality, environmental damage and overall misery. We need to reflect more on the assumptions behind our economic thinking. We human beings were never meant to be mere cogs in the industrial wheel, or chips in the info technology era — for Jesus came to give us life — life in all its fullness.

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