Change Everything

12 May

Swindon Festival of Literature director Matt Holland gave a fist pump as last night’s author concluded at Swindon Arts Centre.

A full house, a double event (for the first time), attended by Swindon’s ‘movers and shakers’, cheering. Was this a celebrity? A high-profile fiction writer? Not this time. This was an author talking about the economy.

A festival fan had suggested the event and the festival took a risk that paid off.

The speaker, Christian Felber ‘flown in from Austria by way of Portugal’, is not an economist, he tells us. In fact he’s rather cross with modern economics (as cross as such a kind, smiley man such as Christian could be). Modern economics – and there is no other kind, it’s a very new discipline – is heartless.  He tells a joke – a student worries to a university professor that he cannot decide the course to study. The professor says to follow his heart. The student thinks then says, ‘business ethics’. The lecturer says, ‘then you will have to make a choice’. Economics only cares about itself and how much money is made – ethics is seen to have no relevance to it. It mixes up means and goals and forgets money is a means to an end, not the end.

Christian demonstrates this ‘perversion’ by a physical inversion with a head stand on stage – he’s also a contemporary dancer.

88 per cent of Germans and 90 per cent of Austrians want a system change away from capitalism. According to a survey by that bastion of business and economics, the Financial Times, 80 per cent of China, Germany and America want more equality. And only 5 per cent of Germans feel their vote is effective. Our capitalist system and democratic system is not working for the vast majority of people.

He quotes the Bavarian constitution – ‘The economic activity in its entirety serves the common good.’ The Common Good. This forms the basis of his economic theory. But what is the Common Good? Christian takes his definition from various countries’ constitutions: human dignity, solidarity, ecological sustainability, social justice, democratic co-determination and transparency. And how do we currently measure success? Gross Domestic Product, financial profit and return on investment – all money.

Christian suggests a change. Let’s measure success by their common good product, a common good balance sheet, and a common good exam.

He gives an example. Currently a Bank for the Common Good is being set up in Austria which will give loans dependent on the common good, cooperative aims of a company. Two pig farms were recently set up in Germany, one 50,000 and the other 100,000. If the pig farms had approached the Bank of the Common Good for a loan, they would have been rewarded not for maximum profitability but if the pig herd was the best size for the pigs. At one of his talks, as luck would have it, a pig scientist told him the optimum number – seven, a long way from 100,000. Therefore the bank would have given the most preferential loan rate to the business who’d planned pig herds of seven, the worst to a herd of 100 and denied a loan to a herd over 100.

This is redressing the balance. Currently the system rewards recklessness and selfishness, pathological not empathetic attributes, profit above all else. It is very hard to earn the first million but after that it is progressively easier. By the time you own a billion pounds, you will need to spend £200,000 a day not to get richer.

But how can the system change? Not through government who’s vested interests are to maintain what’s already there, or who worry they will lose power with a radical shift. Christian says a citizen assembly could decide our sovereign rights. He suggests a game and invites five men and five women to join him on stage. He asks if they are in favour of a maximum wage. He asks them to suggest a maximum level and the offers range from 30 per cent above minimum wage to 20 times the minimum wage plus no ceiling on investment. Next comes a curiously effective way of voting (‘we have spend a lot of time thinking and researching the best way to do this’ he says, ‘so expensive PR firms can’t be used to win votes’) – Christian lists each suggestion and asks the panel to ‘look into their heart, feel their pain’. The desired option is the one met with least resistance, not the most popular.

To the suggestion that makes them feel much ‘pain’ they should put up both hands, a little pain – one hand, and no pain – no hands. Swindon Festival’s impromptu citizen assembly offers the least resistance to three to four times the minimum wage.

Christian has asked this question in the same way in over 40 countries and the average is 10 times the minimum wage (go, caring Swindon!). Why then, he asks, do we have no maximum wage? The maximum people earn is 600 times the minimum wage in Sweden, Austria 1,000 and in the US – in the millions? It has been shown that money makes us happy when it meets our basic needs, beyond that it makes us no happier; fulfilling relationships are what makes the world go around.

Although it sounds like utopia, a little like a wonderful dream, Economics for the Common Good is gaining traction. The movement has the support of an EU advisory group – 86 per cent voted in favour of this system. Stephane Hessel, co-author of the declaration of human rights, has voiced his support. Hundreds of companies have signed up to running their business according to the measurements of the Common Good.

Christian is asked if he supports the Universal Basic Income. He says, yes, under the current system as it restores dignity, but it won’t be necessary under an economy of the common good.

I ask if he trusts the EU to preserve our interests in the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP). He says, ‘no, not at all!’ In TTIP there is no reference to values or common good indicators – it is all about trade and free market, not an ethical market. Matt asks him whether we should vote ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU come June, ‘one word answer! Yes, or No!’ he orders. Christian says, ‘I refuse to answer’.

And what can we, ourselves, do to create an Economy for the Common Good? Look at your values, says Christian, change your lifestyle, engage in social movements, initiate a local chapter of the economy of the common good in your own community, with at least five people, of course. We are social beings. Don’t allow ourselves to be reduced to our individual selves.

Changing the system on which the Western World rests isn’t explainable in one hour or even two in this special extended event. But the concept and the calm, logical, loving way it was delivered gave the appreciative audience hope that a better alternative is possible.

Christian Felber spoke at Swindon Arts Centre as part of Swindon Festival of Literature, 11 May 2016.

Find out more about the Economy for the Common Good at www.changeeverything.info

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

Louisa Davison is the founder of Festival Chronicle and is also known as Agent Louisa of Secret Agent Marketing.

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