Get Real

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article written for the program. In it, he explores the real economy and asks a few questions along the way.

Our current economic system and all the social and political systems tied to it require perpetual growth. Growth not only underpins the financial economy but the real economy as well, which requires new goods and services (or more demand for the same) to expand. The end of growth would mean the collapse of financial markets and stagnation in the real economy. It would also lead to social and political upheaval due to financial inequality. The socio-political perspective that underlies our obsession with growth is the presumption that lower and middle-class citizens will accept massive inequality as long as their lives (and wages) get incrementally better, year after year. We would all love to have that private yacht, but are content as long as our annual salary increase allows us to take that Alaskan cruise. And this incremental improvement does not come from increased economic equality or financial redistribution; it is a result of growth.

Another long standing economic assumption is that, as jobs are automated, new forms of work will emerge. While some estimates follow a historically consistent trend of 10% job displacement in the foreseeable future, other estimates predict an acceleration of displacement, up to 50%. If job displacement does enter the 50% range, the creation of as-yet-unknown jobs, at such significantly high numbers in a relatively short period of time, seems unlikely. Even minor displacement can have a significant disruptive effect on political and social cohesion. But there is another option for continual growth in the real economy: instead of creating new jobs, simply commoditize things that people are currently doing for free.

Paul Mason alludes to this in his book “Post-Capitalism” when he suggests that in order to make this a scalable economic area of growth, “would require the mass commercialization of ordinary human life.” Late capitalism appears to be stealing a few plays from the feminist economics playbook. While media attention has largely been focused on pay equity between genders, some of the foundational work in feminist economics has focused on care work and intra-household bargaining. It is not much of a stretch to interpret Mason’s “ordinary human life” as the traditional perspective of unpaid “women’s work”.

If one is looking for a macro-trend in the real economy, one need look no further than the colonization of social interaction by the economy. This is evident in the more ubiquitous forms of social media but is also increasingly prevalent in more innocuous forms. Consider the cuddle party, a social media coordinated interaction where strangers come together out of a desire to cuddle (and watch a movie). Organizations such as “Nurse Next Door” look after the elderly, Christmas dinner can be ordered online, and Chore apps convince kids to (continue) to do work around the house “for free”. The company “Do My Stuff” has succinctly defined the overall trend with their slogan “Outsource your life”.

Anyone considering a new business could start with the question “What are people doing today for free, that I can get them to pay for tomorrow?” Of course, the question now must be asked, if every tiny component of our existence becomes commoditized and outsourced, are we even real anymore?

© Adam Cowart 2018