Scotland and the wellbeing con

by | 27 Oct 2023

Public policy is behaving like wellbeing is 'this with relaxation pods'. It is no such thing; it is a revolution in how we structure our economy - if we do it right.

A local authority gets the ‘public policy is all about the wellbeing economy now’ memo. That means it now needs to come up with something it can say it has done so that in turn government Ministers have something to say when quizzed on their progress on wellbeing economics.

Of course the local authority has business support money. So to do its bit for the ‘wellbeing economy’ it decides to give a grant of £20,000 to an aromatherapy centre in a deprived community. That’s wellbeing isn’t? Like sort of something Gwyneth Paltrow might do. You know, wellness.

And this is why everything in Scotland fails. Marion McLeod put it brilliantly in last week’s newsletter – in Scotland we fund soundbites, not policies. In reality wellbeing economics would represent a major, radical disjuncture from what we currently do. It is a long way short of communism, but it is a long, long way away from sending some frazzled mother of two working two jobs on minimum wage to get pelted with lemongrass and cedarwood to compensate.

Otherwise, mostly public policy seems to believe that ‘wellbeing economics’ are basically exactly what we do now but with meditation pods and air source heat pumps. There is an entire industry of people saying ‘wellbeing’ before something in the belief it makes a bad thing good. The concept has been stripped of its original meaning.

What is that meaning? What is wellbeing economics supposed to be? I find that the best way to think about this is ‘an economy that doesn’t fuck things up’. If you follow that basic principle you arrive at a bunch of practices which would describe a new economic system. This does not mean ‘stand where you are and don’t make things worse’. Instead try this; think ‘what do I consider to be a healthy state, how do we get there and how do we keep it that way’.

What would be a healthy state environment? Imagine human economic activity was removed and you’ll picture how our environment, the complex natural ecosystem that sustains life on the planet, would quickly rebalance itself. It would recover a state of health (not the same as before because of what we’ve done, but a new state of health nonetheless).

Now imagine the impact of human economic activity was removed from human biological and psychological health (assuming a decent life with modern healthcare could be secured). We’d still suffer from disease, ageing and the physical damage living does to our bodies (some of us would still get hit by lightning), the mental anguish of losing loved ones… But we’d basically be ‘as well as it gets’. We’d be in a healthy state.

So now you have a baseline for a healthy you living in a healthy Scottish environment leading to healthy communities and a democracy in good health. The problem is that this is a thought experiment. We can’t provide generous subsistence and modern healthcare for a population of humans without economic activity. It isn’t possible for that economic activity to have no interaction with the wider environment.

This is 100 per cent the objective of late capitalism – trap people into a place where you can create a monopoly which takes as much as possible out of their pockets

And that is where wellbeing economics comes in. What form of human economic activity can come closest to having zero impact on what would otherwise be a natural ecosystem, and what form of economic activity will have the least possible negative effect on physical and mental health? That – and only that – is wellbeing economics.

To focus you on that, just picture in your head what Scotland would look like if its environment was in peak health (you know, with insects and trees and things). Now pick the moment in recent years when you felt the absolute best. Last year I left a hotel after a week’s holiday that was so relaxing I felt like someone had surgically lightened my shoulders – no hint of worry, anxiety, tiredness in my body. I was ‘well’.

Put them together – you feeling best in an idyllic environment. Let’s call that ‘wellbeing’. A wellbeing economy is the version of the economy that realises that picture and then does the very, very least damage to it that it possibly can.

That isn’t close to where we are. It doesn’t reflect any of the data about Scotland, the shocking and rising proportion of people medicated for mental health, the quality of life people report, the verifiable evidence on the health of our land and its biodiversity.

It isn’t even close to where I was by the time I got home from that holiday. We were delayed for hours in an airport which was baking hot but in which the only available water was about £2.50 for a 330ml bottle. We spent a fortune and were still all dehydrated and tetchy.

This is 100 per cent the objective of late capitalism – trap people into a place where you can create a monopoly which takes as much as possible out of their pockets. That is what this economy demands – it maximises shareholder profits. But it does so at harm to humans.

It does this for the purpose of ‘growth’. And yet here’s the thing – we have no pressing need for that growth. As we’ve seen, that kind of ‘rentier profit’ makes a tiny number of people overwhelmingly rich with little real benefit to the wider public. Redistribution of income and wealth across society would achieve much, much more than further GDP growth.

That is why the mantra of wellbeing economics is ‘it’s not about growth’. In fact, it’s not about size at all (no, it’s not about degrowth either, which is just another way of fetishising size). It’s about development – better, not (necessarily) bigger. The economy has got massively bigger over the last three decades but little got measurably better and lots got worse.

So let’s challenge the economic theory that fleeced me for a tiny bottle of water for my children. Must profit be maximised to make the airport viable? If airports were struggling they could impose a £10-per-ticket levy and just put free water in. I’d be happy to pay that to avoid the Pavlovian experiment in desperation that is taking a family to an airport these days.

But airports do not need to achieve that profit maximisation – they do it because they can, because the state has granted private operators a monopoly on the means of entering or leaving the country by air. The port (the airport) is a wild free-for-all of exploitation of a captive audience.

Don’t believe me? Edinburgh Airport turned over £193 million last year. It managed to scrape out £81 million of operating profit of which it invested only £17 million in capital. They’re not struggling. And yet they’re a national port, a crucial part of our public infrastructure.

Until the public realises that it’s being conned again, that, currently, none of Scotland’s ‘wellbeing economics’ activity has anything much to do with the radical economic change we need, that public will continue to be a stressed, anxious, overweight and medicated basket case wandering around a dying planet

One of the elements of wellbeing economics is the concept of the ‘Foundational Economy’, the parts of the economy which are the foundation for the other parts, things like energy, education, healthcare, transport, roads, policing. In a wellbeing economy these are never privatised for profit but are run for the public good. Like an airport with free water and comfortable chairs… (To be fair, Edinburgh Airport has one source of free water.)

So in a wellbeing economy I make it home from holiday still feeling good – but sadly I’ve been responsible for some woeful carbon emissions. There was no reasons in principle that we couldn’t have got there on a ship powered by hydrogen – except who can sacrifice four days of their precious leave days on a ferry?

But what if it was less ferry, more cruise ship? It could become part of the holiday. What if we just didn’t work so many hours, had more holidays and so four days on a lovely boat trip would be cracking?

If the market isn’t fixing this (it isn’t, it’s doing the opposite), in a wellbeing economy it is for the government to intervene in the interests of the public. If viable sea routes are not available, create them. If hydrogen ferries don’t exist, build them (yes, I know, I know…). If businesses don’t move to four day working weeks, force them through legislation.

See what wellbeing economics has done there? If you apply this across the board it does Big Things. It runs the economy for people and follows the logic of what that means, but always within the constraints of a genuinely healthy environment. ‘Economic growth’ has nothing to do with it whatsoever. That was the before-days when things didn’t work.

You can just repeat this over and over in your head. Look at your relationship to work and what it does to you. Look at how you use your spare time and whether you get enough. Track the anxiety that comes from financial insecurity, look at the damage your doing to the world around you.

Now, in your head, redesign the system so none of this happens, or at least that it is absolutely minimised. See? It’s not an add-on, it’s a revolution. And it is a revolution which is good for all of us, even the very wealthy. It happened because you shifted the driving purpose of the economy in your mind. It is no longer all about profit maximisation but ‘the art of not fucking things up’.

The second I first heard the phrase ‘wellbeing economics’ I grimaced, exactly like I did when I first heard the term ‘build back better’ during the pandemic. I grimaced because, well-meaning as these attempts to rebrand radical politics are, it is precisely the kind of nicey-nicey waffle that corporations absolutely love. It is an invitation to fake things. Wellwashing – ‘this but with cushions’.

Until the public realises that it’s being conned again, that, currently, none of Scotland’s ‘wellbeing economics’ activity has anything much to do with the radical economic change we need, that public will continue to be a stressed, anxious, overweight and medicated basket case wandering around a dying planet.

And yet the alternative is sitting there, a radical idea hidden behind an aromatherapy centre importing essential oils on polluting tankers dragging frankincense from war-torn Somalia.

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