Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College, a member of the MacArthur Foundation Connected Learning Research Network, and co-founder of the Center for a New American Dream. Schor’s research focuses on consumption, time use, and environmental sustainability. Her books include After the Gig: How the Sharing Economy Got Hijacked and How to Win it Back (2020), The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (1998), and The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992).
She is also the vice-chair of the board of the Better Future Project, one of the country’s most successful climate activism organizations.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The growing global climate movement and activism
- The success of experiments in universal basic income and services
- The increasing rates of democratic engagement and activation
- The rising popularity of a four-day workweek, without losing productivity
- The benefits of de-legitimizing of extreme wealth
Connect with Juliet Schor
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute where we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them all our one big question: In the midst of all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? And today, my guest is Julia Schor. She’s an influential economist, sociologist and author of five national bestsellers about American work life and spending habits, including The Overworked American, The Overspent American, Born to Buy, Plenitude and her new book, After The Gig. A member of the Harvard faculty for 17 years, Juliet currently teaches the Sociology Department of Boston College, and she’s also Co-Chair of the Board of the Better Future Project, an organization that works to build a diverse, powerful and democratic grassroots movement that will drive society to address climate change and its devastating effects, advancing a fair and fast transition beyond coal, oil and gas towards an economy powered by renewable energy, with equitable benefits for all people. We’ll link you to her bio so you can see her many honors and contributions to social well-being.
I just want to say that Julie and I met around the time she wrote a book The Overworked American, and that was about a year after I published Your Money Or Your Life. Together, we helped to start the Center for the New American Dream, which has been going for about 20 years, and we served on the board for many years, me half a decade, and Julie for a lot more. The Center was dedicated to transforming the way Americans think better and spend money; more fun, less stuff, really trying to shift consumerism patterns in our country. Together, we’ve been part of a diffuse and sometimes focused movement for 25 years, to address consumerism, resource depletion, climate disruption, and justice, through promoting lifestyles built on enoughness rather than more. So it’s just such a pleasure for me, I think we haven’t seen each other for 15 years, to talk with Julie today about what she sees is actually going right in this post pandemic time.
Hey, Julie Schor. Thank you so so much, old friend, for joining me on my podcast What Could Possibly Go Right? Just a few thoughts as the tide of the pandemic recedes in the United States. There’s three big issues that are being left on the shores, so to speak, and you could call them the basics, Health, Education, and Welfare; as in, how do people meet their needs. You’ve written for decades about the work and spend hamster wheel, suggesting over and over ways we can live better, with less distractions, less consumption, less time sinks, less time on the job. So I’m asking people like you I call cultural scouts, people see far and serve the common good, what you see bubbling up that could take us in a better direction. Not what should happen, but what could happen, because the conditions are ripe and it’s already sprouting.
Before I turn it over to you, I just want to mention two possibilities that are on my mind, which got me to call you. You can ignore them or you can key off them, whatever you’d like to do. One is that we seem to have accidentally run a national universal basic income experiment. What happens when people have an income not tied to a job? Is that a thread we can productively pull on, especially as AI absorbs more of the repetitive tasks in society? That’s one. And then the second one is that people on the financial independence path, a la Your Money or Your Life, seem to have found benefit in the pandemic lockdown. They’ve been re-skilling and bonding with family, spending time outdoors, hobbies. They’ve been enriching their lives and they’re surprised and they’re a little guilty about it. They’re not all pure lily white; there’s a lot of diversity in that community. I’m wondering if just having your money life clarified, even if you’re still paying off debt plus a stimulation check, tells us anything about resetting our norms and expectations and policies about society-wide, what is this thing called work and money and making a living, or as we used to say, making a dying? There’s so many issues that are up now that we’ve gone through this cleansing time. So take it over. What could possibly go right?
Yeah, that’s a great way to start. I was thinking about three other issues that I just want to throw out before I pivot to your questions, which are fabulous questions. And let me just say what a pleasure it is to be here with you. For those who are watching, Vicki and I worked together for many years, beginning in the mid-1990s, and we haven’t seen each other in forever. So it’s really nice. I do think there’s a lot that could go right, right now, and in fact, I see it going right.
The three big crises now… I just have to say a little bit about what’s going wrong, just to show you where I think we’re finally getting somewhere in a positive direction. First, of course, climate and biodiversity and ecological crisis. Second crisis, of extreme inequality and income stagnation, middle class squeeze, etc. So, the economics. Then third is the democratic deficit, a shift toward authoritarianism and so forth. On all three of these fronts in the last two years I would say, slightly different timing for each, but it’s been remarkable what’s happened, from many years of slogging it out in the climate movement in which nothing was happening, we really weren’t getting anywhere, and then boom, suddenly we have a real climate movement. It’s global. We have the biggest climate strikes in history, protests going on, then increasingly, each of these protests is outnumbered by the next one that comes along. So they’re getting bigger and more powerful, more pervasive. The School Strikes Sunrise in the United States, the youth movement, Green New Deal. We have Extinction, Rebellion, a global movement addressing not just climate, but ecological collapse more generally. Fossil fuel companies are on the defensive. The International Energy Agency just last week, put out a report saying that fossil fuels have to come to an end. They have been the spokesperson for this industry continuing forever; it was just a massive turnaround. It just shows we are winning the climate fight. We’re not winning it at the rate we need to; the climate is being destabilized at a faster rate. But finally we have momentum, we have something real.
On inequality in economics, it’s an almost shocking transformation. Your point about a basic income experiment is a perfect example of how much this discourse has changed. Number one, deficit constraint is out the window now. We actually did something that was really humane, and really, it worked and it was just beautiful. At the beginning of the pandemic, it looked like Europe was going to do so much more than the US, but actually in dollar terms, we’ve done maybe more than they have. I’m gonna come back to what I think that’s done. But absolutely, that’s massive. We’re talking wealth taxes. We are talking about whole new policies, childcare credits for families, extra unemployment insurance, etc. It’s neoliberalism inverted, like it’s been flipped on its head. Suddenly, it’s all about, actually the government can do a lot of good things for the economy. I mean, that’s pretty basic stuff, we all know that.
Democratic deficit is still a massive threat to democracy in this country, but as I mentioned, year after year – and highlights being the Women’s March right after Trump’s inauguration, the Black Lives Matter protests one year on, youth activism, all the new candidates for electoral office – there’s been an absolute sea change. One of the really important things about this is suburban women who were not at all political are absolutely activated and they’re on fire. The apathy and the lack of activism that was common in many parts of our country and many demographics has really transformed. So, yes, COVID has done a lot. It has been an experiment of people living differently, 15 months of living very differently. A couple of things about it.
Number one, like when you and I worked together at Center for A New American Dream, one of our taglines was: More of what really matters. So COVID got us down to what really matters. At the beginning, it was for most people, toilet paper and food, and some other basics; having a house, a roof over your head and utilities, decent water, really back to basics. And not everybody has loved it. There are people who are just dying to get back on the cruise ships or travel. Travel has been a tough thing for a lot of people, not to travel. I think many, many people – and you reference the FIRE community, but I think even much more broadly than that – people got into cooking. Of course, you couldn’t find a yeast to save your life, or flour. And DIY more generally. The other thing is, try to get a reservation at a campground! Massive movement to nature and outdoor activities. And social connection. I just read a really heartbreaking post by an economist friend of mine, who had to rush to India to take care of his parents. Both of them got COVID. In the end, they have both survived, thankfully, but his message after discussing this harrowing experience in the Indian hospital was, pay attention to your loved ones. Every moment is precious. I think there’s also that, having been deprived of the face to face contact with people we care about, people recognizing how important that is.
So basic income? Yes, I do think this has been a moment in which the idea that we should just provide some basic supports for people, is actually kind of feasible. We have more places, cities, thinking about doing this. We have some of the building blocks of a basic income, like the childcare allowance. We’ve got a long way to go in this country to be able to say, yeah, we’re going to provide people with the basics that they need, and we’re going to do it through a combination of basic income and also universal basic services; the idea that we’re going to provide the certain services to everybody who needs to have these things, whether it’s health care, education, childcare, etc. We’re far from being there, but we started to take the steps.
I’ll add one more thing, because this is my hobbyhorse, is how much do we work? You raised artificial intelligence and automation. These are developments that are going to make it much, much easier for us to produce with many fewer hours of human labor. So what do we do with that? Do we keep on that hamster wheel that you mentioned and just try and keep increasing the amount of stuff we produce and so forth? And we can go into a lot of why that model doesn’t work. Or are we going to say, you know what, let’s take the four day workweek. That’s increasingly a popular idea. I’m involved in a pilot in Ireland for a four day week. The Spanish government is doing this. The Scottish government is doing it. All over the world, we’re going to hear more about it. Next month, there’s going to be a global announcement about places around the world that are starting to look seriously at giving people a schedule of four days with five days’ pay, because we can do it. People can be productive. They don’t have to lose productivity just because of what’s going on in workplaces today around the world. So I’m actually feeling very optimistic about where we’re at.
Yeah, it’s like you and I and so many other people have been pushing against a wall for 30 years and loyally standing there, not even putting a finger in the hole; loyally standing there, saying there is another way to live and it’ll make more sense in so many ways. But it wasn’t within the mindset of neoliberalism. One other thing in your litany that I wanted to say is, you were the person who taught me about the idea of public consumption. If we have public schools, then that’s all from the personal debit column. If we have public libraries, also from the personal debit column. The more we have systems that are run by government, that provide for us when we need it but we don’t have to buy it and store it… It’s almost like this whole thrust from the 50s onward, which was almost like industrial policy; like, how are we going to get rid of all the stuff that we can now produce, because we’ve ramped things up? So we got to teach people to want what they don’t need. This whole process of man’s home is his castle, close the door, get as much crap as you can (excuse the expression) inside the door, and then close it. Is that model weakened now? I mean, in our minds, we are still so individualistic, but in practicality, what are the shifts you’re seeing? Is that model weakening? And is, whether you call it socialism or cooperative structures, is that on the ascendancy? If so, how can us ordinary people out here, where can we plug in to stand on that side of the boat, so the boat rights, if you know what I mean?
Yeah, it absolutely is on the ascendancy. If you think about the post war era, it was the era of what I would call the de-politicization of consumption, and that de-politicization was also individualization, this idea that consumption is an individual thing, so minimize what the government provides, take away all value judgments and ethics and morality from consumption. You can’t question what another person wants, that’s all individual. Man’s home is his castle. Of course, a very patriarchal era, particularly the early post war period. By the time we get to the “neoliberal era” which begins roughly 1980, it’s the systematic destruction of the public provision of services, so it’s the attempt to privatize everything, hollow them out. So where we see, whether it’s the hollowed out public health system that we see with the pandemic, or the destruction of just even the basic provisioning of unemployment insurance – I mean, that was the rights program all along, was to privatize where they could and destroy public services because they want to destroy government. You know, Grover Norquist’s famous thing, shrink it so much, you can get it down the drain in the bathtub. So that’s all lost credibility.
You notice the GOP, they’re fighting everything we’re trying to do, but they don’t have an alternative. It’s not as if they’re willing to stand up for their idea anymore, because it’s completely lost legitimacy. So, yes, I think for us now, some of the big questions are, what is the scale of provisioning? If we’re in a more collective cooperative commons era, what do we need at the federal level? What do we need at the state level? What do we need at the local level? Because a lot of this provisioning can be done at a local level, where you have smaller scale and more democratic control over whether we’re talking about municipal utilities, or we’re talking about either state or some smaller entity’s public banking, or we’re talking about a healthcare system. I think we need the flows of money to happen at the federal level, but we need a lot more control at the local level, subject to issues around racial justice and some of the other dimensions of our country, aspects of our history that have made local control problematic. Part of why progressives went for national level policies was because we saw what was happening at the local level. So you have to solve that, but it’s also the case that it doesn’t mean that the federal government is providing everything if you start to talk about things like universal basic services, for example. A lot of this can be done, I think, really well at a municipal level or at a county level, if we’re talking about more rural, less urban entities.
It’s like all the parts and pieces have started to move, or at least they’re unglued. That’s what I’m feeling from what you’re saying. The parts and pieces are unstuck from one another, the ossification and all that. Now they’re moving, but it’s a very complex puzzle to see, and I don’t think anybody’s going to get on top of this movement and direct it. As I used a metaphor earlier, it’s more like when you’re sailing and it’s keeling over in one direction, and you have to lean over in the other or you’re going to capsize. It’s more like moving in different directions. If you have to emphasize or sequence the kinds of things that, in the near future, if we stand on this place on the deck, we’re actually going to stabilize the kinds of changes you’re talking about, and that’s the first thing we need to do, that’s going to be the basis for the next… I’m not asking you for a whole big program, I’m just saying in your instinct, where is it that we cooperate with reality?
Well, I go back to those three things I started with. On the one hand, we’re not going to get anything unless we can maintain and actually expand basic rules of democracy, because we have a plutocratic class as well as a white supremacist movement that is trying to enact very non-democratic, very concentrated power authoritarian outcomes. So the things that you and I, and probably almost all the people watching this care about, are not things that those people actually have any interest in and they’re actively fighting against them. We’ve got to maintain some level of democracy. So that has to do with the rules of the game, the rules of the political game, very key.
Second thing, there are certain variables, if you think about our economy and society as a system, and it is a system. It’s an interlocking system, so in that sense, almost anything you do can have impacts in other places, and not just one place to intervene and so forth. But there are certain things that if you change them, they have really profound ripple effects through the system. The degree of income and wealth inequality is one of those things. It’s connected to so many other things. I’ve done research on how it’s connected to carbon emissions, for example. If you have a more concentrated income and wealth at the top of the distribution, you have more carbon emissions. We don’t exactly know why. It probably has to do with political power, it has to do with the emissions of the people at the very top, they’re massive emitters. But we know it has impacts on health, we know it has impacts on consumption, all kinds of things. That’s a key variable, so doing something about that.
Then obviously, on climate, we’ve got to address energy use and connected to that, agriculture as well and land use. But first, fossil fuels and get off fossil fuels. So those are those are the key things. I’m a little bit coming out of having been trained as an economist, but then someone who moved over much more into studying culture. I believe both are important. But if you ask me as you did, like you’re on the boat, it’s going one direction, and what do you need to do to move it in the other direction? I’d say I go for the economic variables first, because I think the culture will move with it. Not in an automatic way, but I think we all have a better chance than doing something first that’s just cultural and hoping that the economics will move along with that. So those are key issues. Then of course, I always care about time use and working hours, because I think that has really big impacts, daily life impacts that affect how people act and live and so forth.
Yeah, so one last zeroing in, since we’re gonna boom, we’re going to handle this wealth gap. So where’s the pressure point on that? Is it Elizabeth Warren’s just two cents? Is it de-legitimizing extreme wealth? Is it working? Where are we going to stand on the deck of the boat on this one to get it to move?
Well, it’s an interesting question. I do think we need a wealth tax. That in itself is not going to do it, because these people have amassed so much wealth, the degree of inequality that’s developed is so much. I lived in the Netherlands for a couple of years in the 90s. They had a wealth tax, a much more equal society there, but you know, it didn’t change everything. One of the people I really respect a lot, Yochai Benkler, scholar at Harvard in Harvard Law, has written about how these sort of markets developed, superstar markets in many industries, that lead to much more extreme concentrations of wealth. You know, why is it that CEO pay exploded, or people in finance, why their pay exploded and so forth. And it is true, I think that the story of the norms changing was really important.
You asked the question, de-legitimizing extreme wealth; what happened was the reverse, where you had the legitimation of this. So we’ve got to change the way those markets work. I’m not sure we know yet how to do that. There are proposals for maximum wages; that worker power could help, because is workers claim more, then there’s less for management. I mean, that’s part of the reason management was able to do this and take such an increasing fraction, is because worker power was so undermined. And that’s where something like the universal basic income and universal basic services really can do a lot because by putting that floor under wages, how far they can fall, and giving people a viable alternative to a crappy job, that’s massive. I started my career in economics, writing and thinking about that, and I showed that when people had less cost of losing their job, when there was more unemployment insurance, or unemployment was lower, they went on strike much more, their wages were higher, it affected how hard they worked, they could work less if they didn’t have so much fear of losing their jobs. So, in some sense, that’s another one of those variables. We call it the cost of job loss in the economy, that has a profound effect on all kinds of things. And that’s what FIRE is about, right? It gives people an out and gives them much more control, even in pre-retirement. It gives them a lot more control in their jobs and so forth. That was a long winded non-answer, because I’m not sure we know exactly how to do it. But maybe we’re back to UBI and universal basic services, and that’s the way to close the wealth gap? I think that would do a lot.
Yeah, really I agree with you. It’s really exciting to see how much is in play, and how people are sort of blinking and going, really, could we have this? There’s a sort of guarded optimism that there could be something good coming out of this. I think our job today was just simply to name it.
I want to give an example from my husband’s research about framing, how the same kind of situation can be so different in different contexts. He studied weavers in pre-colonial South India and the way the system worked was they would get money from merchants. They would take money from merchants to buy the threads and they’d weave and then the merchants would get the cloth afterwards. So the merchants advanced the money. You could think of that as the weavers were borrowing the money from the merchants. Now in our world, when you borrow money as a debtor, all the jeopardy is on you, and not just all the bad things are gonna happen to you if you can’t pay it back, but also all the moral opprobrium that the right has placed on people who owe money that they can’t pay back. We saw that in full force with the financial crash 10 years ago. But at that time in India, it was the merchants who held the bag, and it was a complete reversal. Once they gave the money, maybe they got it back, maybe they didn’t. And the law was on the side of the weavers, not on the side of the merchants. Our law is so much worse. Elizabeth Warren’s worked a lot on this but our laws are so much on the side of the loaner and not the loanee, the borrower. So it’s an example of how you can really flip an economic relationship based on the institutional, the historical, the cultural context; who should suffer when somebody can’t pay something back. In the US case, it was through no fault of their own in many cases. You know, the market collapsed. But we’re flipping the script right now. We’re flipping the script and starting to see things in a very different way and it’s exhilarating.
Exactly. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much, Julie. What a great conversation.
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