Reclaiming Wasted Wealth

One of the articles in It's About Time! (IC#37)
Originally published in Winter 1994 on page 22
Copyright (c)1994, 1996 by Context Institute

What will it take to reduce the waste described by J.W. Smith?

The massive restructuring of US corporations with the axing of thousands of jobs indicates that much unnecessary work is already being eliminated.

This system-wide transformation could be another step toward dividing the population into two groups: one that includes a shrinking number of over-worked, over-consuming, and over-stressed people, and a second group that contains a growing number who work in low-paying temporary jobs, with a diminishing sense of self-worth, security, and belonging.

On the other hand, the shift in employment patterns could be a major opportunity to rethink our job system, which, after all, is a relatively recent invention. Moving toward a system that divides the work among a greater number of people is a prerequisite to any humane effort to cut unnecessary work (see page 39 for some specific approaches).

One of the impediments to sharing work in the US is the fixed cost associated with each worker hired. One of the largest of these fixed costs is health insurance. Adopting a system that de-couples health insurance from employment would remove a significant block to shorter work hours in the US. Doing so could also cut the tremendous excess costs associated with filing forms and resolving claim disputes.

There are additional steps that government could take to help reduce unnecessary labor. Paul Hawken has suggested that taxes should be levied on the things we want to discourage, rather than things (like income) we want to encourage.

Perhaps the corporate income tax should be replaced with a tax on waste: advertising, legal expenditures, solid and hazardous waste, and salaries in excess of $100,000.

While government could have a very positive role in reducing waste, it’s more likely that the more creative solutions will come from businesses, community groups, and individuals who see ways to avoid the expenses associated with these vast waste territories.

There are already many examples of this in a wide variety of sectors. Some business contracts now stipulate that disagreements should go to binding arbitration instead of to court; the resulting savings in lawyers’ fees increases the pool to be divided in a settlement.

Here are some other ways to circumvent the waste territories.

* Alternative trade organizations allow people in different countries to buy and sell goods without going through large corporations (see IC #36). Revenues go directly to the people who produce the goods, rather than to intermediaries.

* Worker-owned businesses and those that adopt a team approach to production and decision making can save much of the cost of management oversight and increase efficiency. Levi Strauss and Chrysler are among the corporations that have seen major increases in efficiency through empowering teams of employees to make decisions and organize their work.

* Credit unions help keep money out of the vast waste territory of the world of high finance. These institutions pay interest for the funds they borrow, but aren’t also required to pay dividends; they don’t have to make decision based on the short-term best interest of absentee shareholders; and they are less prone to being taken over by other entities or individuals engaged in one of the most wasteful of waste territories: leveraged buy-outs.

Credit unions and cooperatives also save much of the expense associated with advertising, which is one of the most egregious of waste territories. It not only wastes talent, time, and materials, it creates vast quantities of cultural pollution. Moreover, it creates a social norm based on the wasteful practices of over-consumption.

* Buying clubs that order directly from wholesalers circumvent the advertising waste territory and save on the costs of maintaining and staffing a retail outlet.

* Buying from small businesses saves the cost of supporting layers of management who often spend much of their time overseeing each other’s work and battling other companies for market share.

* Buying locally produced goods saves transportation costs and allows the buyer to know more about how the product effects the environment.

* Communities (neighborhoods, churches, intentional communities, groups of friends) can reduce waste by sharing and passing along possessions that are no longer needed, by providing social insurance (agreeing to help each other out when in need), and by providing a richness to life. In comparison, the mall – today’s surrogate community – is a sterile and wasteful alternative.

These are just a few of the opportunities for reducing participation in waste territories, but small actions can make big ripples.

Businesses that find creative ways to disengage themselves from waste territories will be in a stronger competitive position.

Individuals who avoid waste-based consumption practices cut their expenses and gain greater financial independence.

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