Blog: Greed ain't good - RSA

Blog: Greed ain't good

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  • Picture of Emma-Louise Boynton
    Emma-Louise Boynton
    Research Intern
  • Economics and Finance

Although living standards in the Western world are better than they have ever been, we still don't feel like we have 'enough'. Over the last five decades we have been socially conditioned to feel that there is always something lacking in our lives; a hole that can only be filled through consumption. This seemingly insatiable desire for more, for better and for bigger is reflected in the political obsession with 'growth' over sustainability and social justice; limiting our ability to realise the 'good life' for all. If we are to break this pattern we need to understand the idea that sometimes 'enough really is enough'.

The temporary adjustment

During the Great Depression John Maynard Keynes published his seminal paper on the “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, in which he suggested that the unparalleled economic crisis into which Britain had sunk was but a "temporary period of adjustment".

He prophesied that by 2030 income growth would come to a halt as the growth in technological efficiency would allow humankind to satiate its basic needs without having to work longer than several hours a day. This technology-driven and virtually work-free utopia was for Keynes the justification for capitalism which, whatever its moral or economic shortcomings, was the only economic model through which this utopia could be achieved.

More than 80 years on and Keynes’s vision of the ‘good life’ has hardly been realised. Although living standards in the developed Western world have indeed improved, technology has not reduced the number of hours most people work and nor has it benefitted people equally.  If Frey and Osborne’s predictions are correct, then in as little as a decade half of jobs could be automated. Far from introducing an era of leisure, technological advances are eroding whole swathes of the labour market, causing the stagnation of medium-incomes and in many ways exacerbating inequality.

What Keynes did not envisage then was the limitlessness of want that capitalism would fuel, which would fast erode any notion of ‘enough’. tiny_TwitterFor Keynes’s idea of the ‘good life’ rested on the belief that there was some basic set of needs that, once satisfied, would enable (wo)man to live a fulfilled existence, no longer compelled to strive for more. He saw avarice and greed as central drivers of economic growth, but believed that once society was economically positioned to achieve the ‘good life’ then growth would reach its natural limit and such tendencies would fast dissipate.

The Economics of Enough

In ‘The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters’ Diane Coyle argues that we must recalibrate our thinking around the economy for the sake of future generations. She notes that the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 highlighted just one of many economic challenges we currently face. Whilst continuously increasing production and consumption is not only environmentally unsustainable - particularly as the world’s expanding population puts greater and greater pressure on the earth’s resources – it is also exacerbating inequality, as economic prosperity disproportionately benefits the wealthiest few.

Yet in our relentless pursuit of economic growth, indicated by our reliance on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a measure that counts all growth as good, irrespective of its social impact – we are ill-positioned to tackle these issues. As long as we pursue and value growth for its own sake, social and environmental concerns can and will be sacrificed to this end. 

This fits in to a broader, growing discussion on the need for a new and more sustainable approach to the economy. While Coyle argues that this new approach means ensuring we leave posterity enough of an environmental, economic and societal legacy, Dan O’Neill and Rob Dietz (authors of Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources) suggest it means moving to an ‘economy of enough’ – instead of pursuing more jobs, more money and more growth we must instead strive toward enough.

As James Meek wrote with regard to the economic crisis: “The struggle we are engaged in now seems to be the struggle for Britain to be prosperous enough.But until we decide what “enough” means, we’ll never know whether we’ve won or not; we’ll never be happy.” tiny_Twitter


And back to reality…

But how realisable is this idea of an ‘economics of enough’ when the behaviour of most people, myself included, is conditioned to believe that more is not enough? We live in a society in which we are bombarded daily with messages urging us to spend more in order to be happy. Whilst it is hard to disagree with the general premise that we need to reign in the more predatory impulses of capitalism – namely, rampant consumerism and the draining of the earth’s resources – I am not convinced that we are, as a society, anywhere near close to occupying the right frame of mind from which to do so. Why?

A fundamental reason is the effectiveness of the advertising industry’s psychological manipulation of society, the success of which rests on eroding the idea of enough and encouraging material insatiability. To understand the roots of this manipulation look no further than the birth of the public relations industry in the early 20th century. Edward Bernays, the so-called ‘founder’ of PR was Freud’s nephew. Pioneering the use of psychology in US ‘public persuasion campaigns’, he devised a way of directing public opinion through tapping into people’s unconscious desires. He called this method the ‘engineering of consent’. When it came to selling a product this meant constructing an elaborate social fantasy around said product, one that promised to fulfil the purchasers real desires rather than merely serve its basic function.

For example, in 1929 Bernays orchestrated what would be an historic PR stunt and the first of its kind. Tasked with helping the tobacco company ‘Lucky Strike’ broaden its appeal to a female audience, he launched an effective media campaign that associated cigarettes with the women’s liberation movement, which branded cigarettes ‘Torches of Freedom’. In so doing, Bernays was able to overcome the powerful social taboo that forbade women from smoking in public and the habit was fast taken up with gusto.

Bernays set a precedent within advertising. Rather than selling products based purely on their use-value, advertisers thereafter began to sell products based on a fantasy that thereby created infinite demand. Imbued with some higher purpose and offering the possibility of freedom, of happiness or of eternal youth endless consumerism has been justified. So where the influence of Judeo-Christian tradition once upheld an ascetic model of ethics, one premised on sacrifice and the rejection of excess, advertising has helped to sanctify rampant consumption. tiny_Twitter

Where do we go from here?

Advertising is not the sole factor driving capitalist consumerism, but it plays a central role in moving the goal posts that indicate what enough is. And as the advertising industry continues to grow this demand-generation will likely only increase and the problems associated with burgeoning production and consumption only worsen. So, if we are going to begin to tackle our pressing economic issues then it seems we need to think seriously about this notion of ‘enough’. What does enough mean on an individual basis and what does it mean at a broader, societal level?

Perhaps a good starting point might be to identify what it is we really value as a society and then adjust our measure of economic prosperity accordingly. This might mean moving away from GDP as our sole measure of growth and finding an alternative – perhaps, as Hanauer and Beinhocker suggest, we could measure growth in terms of the rate at which new solutions to human problems become available? Or perhaps we need something more radical. Whatever it is, this is a conversation worth having and something the RSA will continue to explore over the course of its ‘Economy 2030’ project. 

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  • Great article that articulates what's on many of our minds with regards to the flaws in capitalism. However, can't help but feel a tinge of regret that I have personally been conscious of the contradictions of growth/consumption, or so called growth - and the demise of our planet for going on a decade - yet I still desire, want and generally over consume. 

    • As with many things it feels like we arrive at the tragedy of the commons, but on the other hand we can see this as a positive. If it is individuals such as you and I that are still consuming negligently then we can at least see that it is within our power to make it better. If it were an entirely political or institutional power then such change would be significantly more difficult. 

  • Delighted to read Emma-LouiseBoynton’s article.  My views entirely –in my case much influenced also by Prof Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity withoutGrowth”, and the Sustainable Development Commission’s 2009 report of the samename (except, curiously, it had a question mark), which he wrote.  The obsession with GDP seems likely to becountered effectively only by accounting for the costs of all biological andsocial capital that is used up in “growing” the economy.  The accuracy of such cost figures willcertainly be disputed, but as they are certainly not zero reasonable estimateswill at least put the crude GDP figures into perspective. 

    Those arguing for a SteadyState Economy (SSE), as Emma-Louise in effect is, must be under no illusions asto the resistance they will inevitably encounter.  Revenues from advertising drive vast swathes ofthe global economy.  Commercial TVdepends on them of course, as do the newspapers; they largely finance thefootball clubs, the Olympic Games, virtually all other public sportingactivities, and much of the music industry. With little or no advertising to support them, all these would have toshrink their ambitions dramatically.  Themedia in particular will not willingly stand quietly by and watch theirlifeblood being taken away.  There mustfirst be a sea change in the attitudes of the public as a whole that discouragesadvertisers from pursuing consumption for its own sake.

    How do we get there?  In current circumstances, few politicians willstand up and advocate moving to an SSE; they will be accused of seeking todestroy the national economy and causing millions to lose their jobs.  That unconstrained growth will also do justthat eventually will be treated as a problem for later generations only, andnot a present one.  The churches couldtake a leading role in promoting saner lifestyles, not only among their congregationsbut among the public generally, as their doctrines are already well in tune withwhat is needed, but sadly they have shown very little willingness to give asignificant lead.  The Pope’s recentencyclical ‘Laudato Si’ is certainly to be applauded as a major break with thepast, but for so long as the Roman Catholics shy away from restraining populationgrowth – one of our most pressing challenges – the Pope’s message will losemuch of its impact.

  • In Britain as within most of the west, growth is society producing more and adopting efficient methods. Billionaires are not complaining about wanting more but without growth the ordinary citizen cannot prosper

    The USA was the first country on this planet to generally reward labour with decent conditions and pay hence the entire country prospering through growth, what destroys people's living standards and GDP is corrupt government and paying more than the country has such as the example with Greece. A great example of growth hugely benefiting society is South Korea, some 50 years ago one of the 5% poorest countries in the world but with stable government and an environment allowing true growth, people prospered and now they are amongst the top 5% wealthiest countries. In the west we should stop all overseas aid except covering disasters, stop selling arms to despots, banning sporting and other contact with corrupt countries run by wicked people allowing no one to prosper and instead offer an alternative, maybe people like Bill Gates and others to help run their economies to create growth and prosperity. If we deem it good to send medical aid to poor countries why can't we physically help economically without simply sending money to corrupt rulers

  • Thank you for the article Ms. Boynton. I felt it was on point on so many level. too is the power of media; manipulating emotional intelligences with the prospect of a better future; although very limited for real sustainable affects of well being for our emotional intelligences.

    The imbalance of emotional intelligences from real creative autonomy of being deprives and marginalized us, plays a huge effect on the core of being human, our well being. Even today's  wellness entrepreneurs trying to fix this huge disconnect in our well being also feed into this extremity of the mind to over analyze and control the now with a fearful and projected future and/or a heighten illusion of consciousness; hence our seek for spirituality. I feel it needs to start here at this core level of well being to affirm a natural balance of our intelligences, then we are more equipped with the aptitude of understandings and enabling "gestures" of what is more dynamic for sustainability... The economy of enough at wellbeing level!

    Again thanks for sharing this article!

  • A really insightful, thought-provoking piece. I thoroughly agree that it is our perception of achievement and the way we measure success that must be re-aligned. Mankind's inherent need to more forwards and develop is a positive thing but must be steered in the right direction, to ensure that drive is used to benefit society and the world we live in.

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