an economy for the common good

Last week, I attended a lecture on the Economy for the Common Good (ECG), an idea and a social movement that centers around a holistic economic model in which all economic activity serves the Common Good. The speaker, Christian Felber, is an Austrian activist and the author of Changing Everything: Creating an Economy for the Common Good.

I had never heard of ECG before this lecture, but as Felber introduced the model, the process, and the movement, I was instantaneously intrigued. Essentially, ECG is a proposal to replace capitalism and communism. No constitution across the world states that the economy should serve anything other than the Common Good. Yet, the way we measure success of the economy is through monetary gains: GDP, financial profit, ROI.

Felber discussed the original meaning of the word “economy” and how the definition of economy is distorted today. Derived from the Greek word “oikonomia”, “economy” means “law of the household”—with the two houses being humanity and nature. The economy should have soul; it should serve these two houses. Aristotle contrasted oikonomia, in which money is a means to the good life, with chrematistic, in which money is the end in itself (i.e. capitalism). With an Economy for the Common Good, all businesses and economic activity would fundamentally serve the world as a whole. Isn’t that the dream?

Instead of measuring economic success as financial gains, the Common Good Balance Sheet should be used. This audit would give a point-based account of how well a company fulfills the five most important constitutional values of democratic states: human dignity, cooperation, sustainability, justice and democracy.

And sovereign democracy (i.e. returning sovereign rights like writing and editing the constitution, electing government, issuing money, etc. to the people) is the process through which to determine these Common Good Balance Sheet on local, state, and national levels. As an audience, Felber led us through an example of how this might work. He wanted us, as the Boston constituency, to set the maximum income limit for Boston. One times the minimum income would be complete equality (everyone earning the same regardless of position), and infinite times the minimum income would be complete inequality (i.e. no limit, i.e. capitalism in America). He asked for the audience members to propose how many times they think it should be. The options that were raised were 1, 60, 1000, and infinite. The option with the least resistance would be chosen, with resistance being counted through the number of arms in total held up by the group.

Our group chose 1000 times the minimum income. But Felber said he was very surprised by this result. Apparently, after performing the same exercise with groups across the world, the average maximum income is always found to be around 10 times the minimum income, and he had only gotten this result one other time–with a group of CEOs in Germany. Clearly, individuals at BC (or at least those in the audience attending the event) feel comparably as privileged as German CEOs—disappointing but not surprising. The point of the exercise was that direct participation can make the lawmaking process so much more efficient and so much more representative of what the people really want.

During the presentation, I was so taken by this movement because ECG captures everything I believe in about ethical fashion and goes far beyond it as well. On one slide, Felber showed an image of a QR code. The corresponding idea was that in the future, all products would have a scannable label that would provide an immediate, transparent report about the Common Good of the company in question. This, alongside incentivizing the Common Good, is a way to combat our current, backwards system of less ethical companies being better off than ethical companies because their products are cheaper. And if this were applied to the fashion industry, with each clothing label providing a full report on how and where that item was made, the market would ideally lead to greater awareness, curiosity, and demand for ethical fashion.

Yet, it is not enough to create an attractive model that 90% of citizens agree with if the government and representatives don’t support it. Despite “democracy”, the masses in nations across the world don’t have the power. But we must have hope that it can get better. Furthermore, in comparison to the power of those currently controlling the global economy (large corporations and governments), ECG is a relatively powerless movement. So global collective (and potentially disruptive) action is necessary.

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