There’s so much to do. Let’s finally get started!
A transformation to a truly sustainable economy is the project of a century that can only succeed if all societal forces are mobilized: people and their wealth. This is the task of a social-ecological full employment initiative. It would contribute to the solution of three problems at once:
- The social and ecological challenges are not being adequately addressed – too little is being done to place our economy on an ecologically sound footing and to promote the common good.
- Millions of people are unemployed or underemployed, and beyond that, many people are not employed according to their qualifications or interests.
- Huge monetary assets can not be profitably invested today and instead flow into speculative markets.
The solution seems obvious: let’s use some of the huge monetary assets (3) to employ people (2) to work on the solutions of social and ecological challenges (1). The political promise would be that all people who are able to work will have an adequately paid and useful job, and that we will do everything humanly possible in order to make our society sustainable.
How can we do this? The strategy would consist of the several components listed in the table of contents. For all of them except for the self-determined service for the common good (point 5) a plethora of political proposals already exist. In this sketch, I do not commit to exact proposals to be followed, because it would be up to the political process to select and negotiate specific programs of action. They are written with the example of Germany in mind because I live there, but could be adapted to any country. These proposals are intended to stimulate the imagination as to what can be done, not in the distant future, but reasonably soon.
- 1 Public investments in building new infrastructures, in research and development
- 2 A program for 100% ecological agriculture in 25 years
- 3 Improving care services
- 4 A program of investing in affordable housing in urban agglomerations
- 5 Introduction of a self-determined service for the common good
- 6 Taxes on CO2 and other environmental damages; ending all subsidies for fossil fuels
- 7 Higher taxes on the wealthiest ten percent of households (income, inheritance and wealth taxes)
Public investments in building new infrastructures, in research and development
Many investments in building a sustainable infrastructure as well as expenditures on research and development fail to promise quick returns on investment. Therefore, private entities invest too little in these areas. For example, if there are to be more electric vehicles, there have to be more recharging stations. But their operation is not financially worth while as of yet (as long as there aren’t any more electric vehicles). In order to get out of this vicious cycle, investments need to be made without regard for short term returns. This can only be done by public agencies.
Likewise, research and development concerning long-term needs are a classic task of public financing, not only because the financial returns can only be expected in the relatively distant future, but also because they are highly uncertain.
- Public investments in infrastructures that are needed for a one hundred percent renewable energy supply, not only in electric power supplies, but also in transport and all other areas;
- Public financing or financial support of research and development projects designed to enable a much more resource-saving economy.
A program for 100% ecological agriculture in 25 years
It is high time that all agriculture meets ecological standards, in order to preserve biodiversity and fertile soils and to reduce nitrogen inputs into soils and water bodies. Such a transformation is only possible if farmers gain better incomes from ecological than from industrial agriculture.
An ecological responsible way of farming usually requires that farmers very closely observe and care for the natural surroundings in which they work. This is hardly possible in the context of large enterprises in which temporarily hired workers do most of the labor. In contrast, small farms provide more people with the possibility to independently and responsibly run their own farming enterprise. Therefore, there are good reasons to alter the playing field in favor of small and medium farms rather than large ones.
An agrarian transformation to small and medium, organic farms would create jobs because ecologically responsible farming requires more labor than does industrial farming. Such a transformation can not happen overnight, however, because existing farms have to go through a difficult transition, and because educational programs have to be geared towards an increased number of work opportunities in agriculture.
- Dramatic shift of agricultural subsidies away from industrially operated large farms (particularly those contributing to excess production), toward organic, small and medium farms;
- Phased introduction of farm regulations to increasingly resemble organic standards;
- Changing the regulatory environment to strengthen the ability of agricultural producers to negotiate higher prices in wholesale markets;
- Introducing legal requirements that food retailers obtain a yearly increasing share of their sales from products that meet stated ecological criteria (to prevent cheap, unsustainably produced imports from flooding the market).
Improving care services
The care services in hospitals and old people’s homes in Germany are seriously deficient. Too few staff have to take care of too many people. The staff are overworked and stressed, while not being properly paid. Therefore, these jobs are unattractive and many open positions can not be filled. The quality of care is neglected, on the backs of patients and old people. Due to demographic change, these problems are likely to become worse.
A program of investing in better care is needed. In addition, it is high time to learn from health care systems in other countries such as Scandinavian countries, in order to introduce similar models in Germany. One possibility is a “citizens insurance” into which all people pay in proportion to their income, while everybody’s costs are paid according to need. A similar system already exists in Austria.
A program of investing in affordable housing in urban agglomerations
In economically vibrant urban agglomerations, real estate prices and rents shoot upwards because demand for housing greatly exceeds supply – and because private investors have no interest in serving this demand immediately (that drives up the prices). The supply can only catch up with demand if organizations that are not profit oriented build or renovate more housing. These can be public housing corporations, building cooperatives, community land trusts, or groups of individuals who join together to design and build their own housing at a lesser cost.
- Direct financing of the construction of public housing;
- Better legal conditions and preferential provision of credit for non-profit-oriented building ventures with business models that provide housing at permanently moderate cost;
- Taking account of ecological criteria such as stringent energy standards, the use of ecologically appropriate building materials, and preference for locations near city centers.
Introduction of a self-determined service for the common good
All people should have the opportunity to contribute their skills, creativity, knowledge and willingness to work for a useful purpose, and to be rewarded for their efforts. Leaps in productivity mean that by far not all people are needed in order to produce marketable goods and services. Even when there are many job opportunities, there may be many people whose qualifications do not fit the local labor market but who do have skills that they could use in a socially useful way. However, working for the common good is usually not sufficiently rewarded. Therefore, many activities that could be done for the common good are currently either not done at all or not done sufficiently. It is time to financially support individuals who get involved in their own communities to address social and ecological issues.
Stepwise implementation of a self-determined service for the common good. The ultimate goal is that every person who is allowed to work in a country has the opportunity to propose doing an activity oriented toward the common good, and that requires about 20 hours work time a week. The payments should be better than minimum wage, and include additional benefits such as health insurance and retirement benefits. A needs test shall not be applied, but the total work-time including other jobs is limited to the equivalent of a full-time job. A contract is signed for each job, determining the nature of the work to be done and how it is to be overseen. Needs-tested social welfare programs continue in operation. Details are to be found on the following pages:
Service for the common good (overview)
Taxes on CO2 and other environmental damages; ending all subsidies for fossil fuels
Prices should be ecologically truthful. This means that ecologically harmful production methods should be more costly than environmentally friendly ones. This is only possible if harming the environment becomes expensive. This can best be achieved by means of taxes and fees, the revenues of which are used in line with the proposals above.
- Introduction of a carbon tax on fossil fuels and other activities that produce CO2 or other greenhouse gases (provided the emissions can be fairly easily assessed and quantified);
- Phased elimination of all subsidies for fossil fuels;
- Introduction of additional ecological taxes, such as conversion of land use from agriculture or biological habitats to settlements or transport infrastructure.
Higher taxes on the wealthiest ten percent of households (income, inheritance and wealth taxes)
For reasons of social equity, a less unequal distribution of wealth and income is urgently needed. In addition, financial resources are needed to enable the urgently needed transformation to a truly sustainable economy (points 1 to 5 above). Because such investments do not yield rapid returns, private investors do not invest sufficiently. Therefor it is necessary that the state intervenes in order to invest despite the low returns. In the final analysis, these investments help even the highly taxed wealthy people, because they or their children will live in a better world than would have been possible without those investments. Responsible wealthy people will actually pay these taxes gladly, as long as the funds are used responsibly by the state.
At the same time, the enormous amount of monetary wealth in private hands can not possibly all be invested profitably – and therefore a substantial portion is funneled into speculative financial markets that sooner or later burst and precipitate crises. These speculative markets need to be regulated directly, but it also helps to contain them by taxing high incomes heavily.
- More progressive taxation of the highest income categories;
- Substantial increase of taxes on large estates, inheritances and gifts, with special rules regarding businesses that are transferred into the ownership of the employees or of a nonprofit foundation;
- Vigorous pursuit of tax evasion;
- Possibly a wealth tax on very rich people.