The presidential primary election is dominating today’s news cycle as candidates from both parties aim to win over voters in the early primary states. In this media frenzy, it’s easy to lose track of the long-term vision for serious economic change. What could a transition towards a more democratic and egalitarian economy look like in the long run?
Harvard Law School recently brought three visionary thinkers, Gar Alperovitz, Juliet Schor, and Greg Watson, to offer their ideas on this question in an event hosted by Unbound, the Modern Money Network, and the Social Enterprise Law Association.
While a blog post is far too short to convey even a simplified version of their ideas, here is a small introduction to the themes they discussed with links to read much more.
Gar Alperovitz is a professor at University of Maryland and Director of the Democracy Collaborative. He sees the economy as neither collapsing nor thriving, but rather stagnating and decaying slowly. This economic decay is coinciding with the decay of our political institutions’ ability to solve problems. This is inspiring people to create solutions outside of the system and creating the potential for a major system change.
In his most recent book, What Then Must We Do: Straight talk about the next American revolution, Gar poses the question: if you don’t like state socialism and you don’t like corporate capitalism, then what? It’s not written, he says, that these are the only two options for an economic system and the opportunity for a new system must first be conceived and developed intellectually before it can take shape physically. He points to worker owned co-operatives and regional forms of governance as tenants of the next system, which he calls the pluralist commonwealth.
For a lot more on Gar’s ideas, check out our recent interview with him, or go to the many online outlets showcasing his work and ideas: The Next System Project, Democracy Collaborative, Community-wealth.org, and his personal site, GarAlperovitz.com.
Juliet Schor is a sociology professor at Boston College and former economics professor at Harvard. She spoke of the skyrocketing levels of income inequality and wealth concentration over the past 40 years. She described our present moment as distinctly different from the 20th century because of the threat of global climate change, the captured state of Congress, and the extreme financialization of the modern economy. This creates a serious need for systemic change, but also the impetus to create this change. As she makes clear, old ways of thinking like Keynesian economics or New Deal ideas aren’t going to fix the current crises.
At the core of the next economic system needs to be the reversal of environmental destruction and mitigation of climate change. Transforming the economic system will require transforming the means of production in a way that democratizes wealth rather than continues to concentrate wealth. While this will require significant public investment, the gains in productivity make this investment possible and should be shared in the form of reduced work hours and increased leisure time. Most importantly to Schor, the solutions must be diverse if they are to work, not a monoculture, which works neither in agriculture nor in social change.
For much more of Schor’s ideas, check out her recent book, Sustainable Lifestyles and the Quest for Plenitude: Case Studies of the New Economy and the organization she co-founded, The Center for a New American Dream.
Greg Watson, the current Director of Policy and Systems Design for the Schumacher Center for New Economics spoke third. Watson’s asks simply, where is technology taking us? With robots replacing workers and with work becoming increasingly efficient, the answer is total unemployment. This end is not necessarily bad if traditional work income can be replaced with other ways to distribute resources equitably. He points to ideas like guaranteed basic income and community supported small-scale agriculture as ways to create a more just and sustainable economy.
Getting big change to happen, Watson argues, is difficult, but not impossible and far from unprecedented. He points to his experience with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in Boston for inspiration. Developers had invested heavily in the Dudley neighborhood with hopes of urban renewal and had burned their properties for insurance payouts when the development never came. The community came together to take back the land and are using it for food production and other community needs in a model that could be replicated in neighborhoods across the country.
For more on Greg Watson’s work, check out the Schumacher Center for New Economics website.