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Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College.  Her research over the past decade has been focused on issues pertaining to trends in work and leisure, consumerism, the[…]

A conversation with the Boston College sociologist and economist.

Question: Why is austerity a bad idea right now?

Juliet Schor: What we really need to do as a society is invest in a series of activities and areas that we’ve been neglecting. The average American is working longer hours today than he or she has, you know, at any time since you know, for many, many decades. 

What this mean is that as we have sort of over invested in money and consumer goods and so forth, we’ve let other sources of wealth erode.  We’ve neglected our communities, our families, and our planet.  So, austerity is really not addressing that issue.  We’ve got to actually take our effort, our money, and our effort to investing in the things which we have eroded. Because hollowing out our communities, hollowing out our families, long-hour lifestyles and so forth, undermine well-being and they undermine our ability to actually have a more plentiful and abundant future.  

One of the ways to think about it is that from the ecological point of view, it’s pretty clear we need a major shift to a whole new set of technologies.  The technologies of the industrial revolution which took nature as if it were endless and in free supply and we could pollute the atmosphere without paying attention to it, pollute our rivers, cut down all our trees, and so forth.  Our technology, our economic system, the way we value things, it’s all based on that idea, which is a crazy idea and the sort of the chickens are coming home to roust on that as we’ve befouled the climate, run down our ecosystems and so forth to get to a new kind of production and consumption system which actually respects and restores the Earth, it means we’re going to have to do a lot of investing. 

But that’s investing at a local scale; at a smaller scale.  It’s a whole different economic model than the one we’ve been using.

: How can we address the current problem of high unemployment?

Juliet Schor: We’ve got 26 million people who are unemployed, underemployed, marginally attached in the labor force.  We’d have to be generating half a million jobs a month for almost two years just to get back to where we were before the crash.  That’s a level of job creation that is absolutely unrealistic and the current discourse about how to get there is woefully inadequate. 

The current discourse is saying, number one, cut the deficit, which will further undermine demand and job growth. Plus its view is, "Well, let’s just try and get the economy growing and the jobs will some how trickle down to the people who need them."  That’s not the way mass unemployment, which is what we’ve got today has ever been solved. And to add to that, there’s a dimension of this that hasn’t been recognized in the conversation that this country is having, which is that we have created a powerful barrier to job creation in the way we’ve structured hours of work.  For about 75, almost 100 years, beginning in the late 19th century, the country took a significant portion of its economic progress, of its productivity in the form of shorter hours of work.  So, it grew, it had increasing income, but also workers got shorter schedules.  We got Saturdays off, we got eventually moved down to something like an eight-hour workday, the concept of a 40-hour work week.  Now that’s a completely normal thing to happen and all of the wealthy countries went on this path. 

We would never have been able to reabsorb all of the labor that gets displaced in the ordinary operation of the capitalist economy if we hadn’t done that because productivity growth is always generating reduced demand for labor, we have industrial restructuring that’s going on all the time.  Some products get popular; others decline, so we’ve got to have a way of reabsorbing the people who are laid off in the normal course of the market economy.  If you don’t have reductions in hours, it’s almost impossible to keep your population fully employed.

Which means that when we try to create a job in this country, we’ve got to generate somewhere between sort of 10% and 20% more revenue in sales for every job than European countries have to.  So, it’s a real barrier to job creation.  If we had shorter hours of work, if we were able to take productivity growth, overtime in the form of shorter hours, we could re-employ those 26 million under- and unemployed people much more rapidly.
What would be some of the benefits of this newfound time?

Juliet Schor: For individuals who want to really secure their economic futures, I think where the most important principles going forward is going to be diversification.  Diversification of your income sources of how you meet your daily needs, and diversification in terms of where you invest.  And this gets us back to that principle of what is wealth, and a broader notion of wealth which includes wealth in the planet, it includes money wealth, of course, but also wealth in people.  If we invest in relationships with other people, that becomes a source of wealth. 

So this brings us back to the question of time use.  If people are able to work fewer hours in the labor market, it means they can take that freed-up time and begin meeting needs in new ways which reduce their necessity to depend on that market.  That market, which as I argue is going to be less stable and less lucrative.  So, for example, in the book I look at people who are involved in a variety of things called high-tech self-providing, but basically making and doing for themselves outside of formal market structure.  They might be growing vegetables, they might be raising chickens, they may be generating electricity on a small scale off the grid, they may have solar collectors on their roof, or a backyard windmill. They may be involved in sharing schemes so they don’t have to lay out as much money to get appliances or cars or other forms of transports because they may be sharing with their neighbors and creating economic interdependencies that are going to serve them well when times are a little bit rocky.

What will the new consumer look like?

Juliet Schor:
rnI the book I have some pretty astounding new numbers on what I call the "fast fashion cycle"—the way which consumers have increased the rate at which they acquire new goods and then discard them.  And that, of course, was a predictable result of an economy of lots of cheap imports, artificially cheap energy, again. And that’s something which, that’s a lifestyle that in some ways... that’s a lifestyle that really has been stopped dead in its tracks since the recession.  And many people have sort of permanently changed the way they think about consuming as a result of having gone bankrupt, or racked up large credit card debts that they now are not sure that they are going to be able to pay, lost their homes, had the trauma of unemployment, all of those things have had a profound impact on a big swath of American public who are not much more interested in saving then they spending for the first time and have really made changes in their consumer patterns that look like they’re going to stick at least for a while. 

If we think about how you can have a satisfying consumer life in this new world, there are two things that really stand out.  One is: if you’re going to buy something, buy for durability both because it’s ecologically much better, but also because in the long run it will probably cost you less if you can buy something and keep it for a long time. 

The second is that we’re going to see a switch from such a heavy emphasis on buying new to much more of a balance between buying things new and buying them used.  This is a trend that actually started, of course, before the recession, in part because people were buying so many things, there’s so much used stuff around, whether we’re talking about clothes, or furniture or electronics or pretty much you name it in the consumer goods area.  There are growing inventories of used goods which the original purchasers don’t want, and now we have lots of ways of exchanging amongst ourselves, whether it’s eBay or Craig’s List or Free Cycle or swap meets or Share This Stuff, a whole range of specialized Web sites that allow people to get rid of things they don’t want and other people to acquire them.  And then all the face-to-face places in which we do this too. 

So, the sort of economies of reuse and exchange are growing rapidly and I think will become a more permanent feature of our consumer environment.  And that means, if you love to shop, you can do it without, you know, putting too much pressure on your pocketbook, or on the planet.  If you love to buy stuff and get rid of it, you can do it and then the key thing really from a financial and ecological point of view is how much new – how many new consumer goods do you buy?  If we shift the balance there, because of course, the used stuff is so much less expensive, we can, I think accommodate both the, you know, shopaholics as well as the planet and our pocketbooks.

Recorded on June 2, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman