“Austerity” is a watchword in the media these days in both domestic and international economic news. The recent downturn, the story goes, has meant that governments can no longer sustain entitlement obligations or take on any more debt. So too must citizens reduce their expectations and assume more personal responsibility, accepting less in return.
In her book Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, economist and sociologist Juliet B. Schor presents a different narrative, one that suggests the current environment is an opportunity to live a more satisfactory, which is to say richer, life. She offers a solution to the “work-and-spend” dilemma of modern consumerism she initially described in her 1992 bestseller “The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure” and continued in the follow up “The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need” of 1999. Her thesis rests on four principles: freeing up time by reducing work hours outside the home, shifting that free time to more self-provisioning, developing low cost, low impact but high satisfaction consumption, and reinvesting in community and other forms of social capital.
Why “Business As Usual” No Longer Works
One of Schor’s main assertions is that we must find another way to define wealth and well-being because, in a phrase, there is no alternative. The supposedly endless cycle of material expansion that fueled economic growth as part of what historian Lizabeth Cohen calls the “consumers’ republic” of the postwar era has been exhausted in America at least. Double-digit unemployment, evaporating home equity, and eroding pension balances have taken the gloss off the consumer spending that accounted for between two-thirds and 70 percent of the US economy in recent years.
But more than that, business as usual (or as Schor refers to it “BAU”) has run into another, less malleable barrier: the environment. Mainstream economics has by and large failed to account for the environmental effects (so-called externalities) of growth, a charge many progressives will no doubt find familiar. In particular, Schor debunks the Environmental Kuznets Curve that projects a bell-shaped ratio of economics to environment, that poor nations pollute until they reach a certain level of wealth, which they then use to buy ecological amelioration. The math has never worked in reality, Schor asserts, as every scientifically accepted measure of environmental degradation continues to rise, threatening impending disaster.
Whether anyone not already attuned to Schor’s sensibility will be persuaded by “Plenitude” is debatable. Going back to the Progressive Era, “the good life” in America has been defined by the potential of an unlimited horizon of material comfort, a central ideological construct of modernity that is still hegemonic despite the strains of recent contradictions. Even those who embrace choices such as conscientious consumption of both the green and blue varieties may not be able to picture themselves canning vegetables and living in DIY yurts, two of Schor’s examples of the new economics of plenitude (which seem like very old-fashioned economics to me).
Indeed, the fundamentals of plenitude are largely compatible with austerity. Working less and therefore spending less seem to go hand in hand in either scenario, and we must take it on faith that because they are of our own choosing we will somehow enjoy them more. Of the four principles, the reactivation of community seems to be the most compelling. And to give Schor her due, many of the tactics of plenitude she describes are being practiced in local communities, such as Detroit and other inner cities, that have been abandoned by consumer society and left to their own devices. In that regard, “plenitude” may be in store for us all.