New Economics: The Backpacker, Capitalism, and Self-Sufficiency

Capitalism leads to excessive focus on shareholder value and negative societal impacts. Instead, we need a fairer system that addresses income inequalities, promotes self-sufficiency, and retrains workers.

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May 25, 2023 06:37 EDT

Capitalism has inherent issues, leading to serious income and wealth inequalities when left unchecked.. An unhealthy obsession with growth creates a materialistic society. However, economic growth also funds taxes and social welfare, helping create a social security net to support the absolute poor through disasters, such as COVID related economic misfortunes.

We need capitalism with restraints, checks and balances. This includes reallocating taxes through welfare schemes for the poor and paying attention to economic sectors that stop growing or die due to market forces.  Retraining redundant labor in new jobs in growth areas is crucial. A capitalist system should focus on self-sufficiency and empower people towards this goal. This also helps redundant labor needing retraining and is also a lifestyle choice for some.

Correcting the Misplaced Shareholder Value Perspective

The undue focus on shareholder value needs correction to ensure fairness to employees. As a society we do not want people obsessed with materialism. Studies reveal that materialistic people are more likely to have low self-esteem, be unhappy, and struggle to maintain healthy relationships. There is a negative association between materialism and well-being. 

‘Shareholder Value’ is now a reviled term. Shareholders with greedy expectations epitomize a materialistic system. Forbes states “A sole focus on shareholders is financially, socially and economically wrong.” Even Jack Welch himself—the idea’s leading exponent—in 2009 had come to call it “the dumbest idea in the world.” This mindset has created a vicious circle of pressures on employees. The resultant cost-cutting and redundancies have caused immense social distress. It’s plain mean.

Minimalism, Self-Sufficiency, and the Keynesian Transformation

In an evolutionary context, minimalism and self-sufficiency relate to economist John Keynes’ 1930 prediction that by 2030, capital investment and technological progress would raise living standards eightfold. He believed people would work as little as fifteen hours a week, devoting the rest of their time to leisure and “non-economic purposes.” According to Keynes, the pursuit of affluence would fade, and “the love of money as a possession… will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.”

Although this Keynesian transformation has yet to occur, Keynes’ ideas remain relevant. For example, GDP per person in the US has increased more than sixfold in a century, and there is now a vigorous debate on the “feasibility and wisdom of creating and consuming ever more stuff, year after year.” Moreover, concerns about climate change and other environmental threats have led to the emergence of a “degrowth” movement, which calls on advanced countries to embrace zero or even negative GDP growth.

The pinnacle of Keynes’ end state of leisure is material saturation. This article suggests achieving the same state through minimalism and self-sufficiency.

Self-Sufficiency – A Human Rights Perspective

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life”, Chinese Proverb.

Self-reliance is an important social and economic idea. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines it as “ the social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet essential needs (including protection, food, water, shelter, personal safety, health and education) in a sustainable manner and with dignity.” Self-reliance, as a programme approach, refers to developing and strengthening livelihoods of persons of concern, and reducing their vulnerability and long-term reliance on humanitarian/external assistance.”

In November 2005, the UN Economic and Social Council General discussed the “Right to Work,” stating that “the right to work is an individual right that belongs to each person and is at the same time a collective right.” The UN puts the onus on governments to ensure this right to work without discrimination. “The national employment strategy must take particular account of the need to eliminate discrimination in access to employment. It must ensure equal access to economic resources and to technical and vocational training, particularly for women, disadvantaged and marginalized individuals and groups, and should respect and protect self‑employment as well as employment with remuneration that enables workers and their families to enjoy an adequate standard of living.” The UN 1994 comment states “The ‘right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts”.

The Emory Law Journal published a 2015 paper titled “An International Human Right to Self-Sufficiency”. It stated “Various phrases in past treaties, recent developments in human rights law, and the rising need for the new/emerging right’s recognition lead to the conclusion that there is an emerging international human right to self-sufficiency. All people have a right to live in a community where they are free to take whatever steps they feel necessary in order to thrive in a self-sufficient manner if they choose to, especially in times of need, and state governments worldwide have the duty to create the atmosphere where self-sufficiency can flourish.”

Therefore, people have the right to choose minimalism and self-sufficiency as their lifestyle. If they do, it is the government’s responsibility to support this way of life without discrimination and with access to economic resources and training. This is important, as discrimination can naturally occur when the new model challenges the old one. Governments must understand how the two models – old and new – fit together.

The Backpacker’s Secret: Minimalism and Self-Sufficiency

International backpackers know the secret to being self-sufficient: minimalism.

Minimalism is deliberate. We choose to live with only the things we need – those items that support one’s purpose. It does not mean renouncing all materialism for a difficult life of discomfort.

Minimalism requires a series of smart and independent choices, free from  social pressures to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. For example, why buy an expensive car when your office is only two km away from home, the grocer is on the ground floor of your house, and public transport is fantastic? Or why should a single person buy a 3000 sq ft house and spend their time cleaning it or hiring expensive helpers, when their real need is likely a small New York style Studio of 550 sq ft? Is there a need to clutter your house with stuff that you rarely use? Do you need a wardrobe with 30 shirts when you only wear 3?

By keeping  our needs to a minimum, we need to work less to earn less to support this way of life. We also avoid the adverse mental effects of the debt trap of rampant consumerism.  Like the backpacker, we can then be one with nature or whatever is our true calling. Minimalism is a recurring theme in my other SSRN working paper “Post-Religion – A Charter of Religious and Human Values”. We should combine minimalism with gratitude. This can be a formula for tremendous personal power and happiness.

We need to spend time doing the things we want to rather than what life forces us to do. A Harvard Business Review (HBR) 2018 article states that “9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more-meaningful work”. It reflects the frustration of people caught up in the spider web of capitalism. Capitalism can exploit factory workers in third-world countries, leaving their conditions often little better than slaves.

The International Backpacker Is a Free Trainer

At a philosophical level, there is some truth to Ayn Rand’s thinking. A degree of selfishness is necessary in the pursuit of one’s personal happiness. Let’s take the example of the lifelong backpacker. He or she rejects conventional roles in organizations, opting for ad-hoc roles to make money for their next trip instead. They reject conventional marriages and prefer short-term relationships as part of their journey. And they may even reject parenthood. This is a very different life with lessons that organizations cannot teach.

Less is more. Backpackers are modern day gypsies. They know how to live in smaller places and manage their health on the road. They make new social bonds on each trip and contribute to that place with new ideas and ways of working. Then they move on without attachments. Their whole goal is to be happy living a life of minimalism.

Backpackers are often the most open, liberated, and spiritual people. They love offbeat authentic tourism, in small villages and homestays. These are often in remote rural scenic areas. They bring with them international ideas. The locals also learn English over time, and they transfer so many other life skills that help build local economies.

Self-reliance (Aatmanirbharta) and Social Acceptance

Self-reliance, or self-sufficiency, is not only from an individual’s choice perspective. It is also important for social and economic policy. Society must accept people who adopt alternative ways of life, treating them with respect and without disdain or reprimand.. According to the UN, the government has an important role in providing the economic resources and training to support those seeking self-sufficiency.

The backpacker is only one example of self-sufficiency and minimalism. We must explore the idea in more detail.

There are three critical ideas that any government exploring self-reliance or self-sufficiency ought to explore:

  1. Food Self-Sufficiency

Reducing poverty starts with education. People should not have to work for food when it is basic and simple to grow it at home. They can even trade the surplus for spare cash. What they need is training to give them this choice.

A family of five can be self-sufficient in as little as 5,500 sq ft. It may surprise some, but there is an economic surplus from selling the excess produce. This helps them cover other needs, such as buying grains, insurance, clothing, and entertainment. A family in California seen on proves this to us.

Governments need to provide financial and training support to facilitate family farming. A focus on intensive farming using hydroponics with cash crops would be helpful. It is important to adopt this high-yield approach and keep it pesticide and GMO free using organic compost. In particular the Kratky method is very low-maintenance, saving money in equipment, electricity, nutrients and water. My earlier SSRN Working paper on New Economics (see its annexure 1) provides details on intensive farming and hydroponics focused on cash crops. 

The state must provide cheap land in the rural hinterlands, albeit in scenic places. This will help attract international backpackers and create a secondary income stream. We need at least natural water, low-cost (e.g., gravel) roads for car access, and some subsidies for solar power. A country like India, rich in natural beauty, can use this model to develop its rural hinterlands.

  1. Housing Self-Sufficiency

Many people spend 30 years of their career saving and paying off the mortgage for the house they retire in. That is their life’s only real aim. That’s a huge waste of a lifetime. They could have enjoyed their life doing the things close to their heart if they had the time and resources. So, let’s explore how we can empower the next generation to do more with less.

We live in amazing times with amazing construction technology. Both revisiting ancient technologies, such as mud and inventing modern futuristic technologies. We need to focus on empowering the next generation with these basic skills. For example, to construct with Auroville-style natural (mud, stone, straw/thatch) and waste material (glass, plastic, rubber, stone (e.g., marble chips), AAC/concrete, fly ash). Or with CalEarth style earthbag architecture. Or with dramatic modern techniques that can much reduce costs. We discuss two here.

Binishell inflatable concrete houses offer a permanent design at a “very low cost, instant construction, easy implementation, and resistance to natural disasters”. We can construct Binishells in a fraction of the normal time and cost. The specifics will depend on the systems used, the project size and other conditions, including site and geology. Replacing steel rebar with GFRP (Glass reinforced FRP) rebar can also reduce costs. State governments can help to spread related knowledge,  skills training,and encourage private players to rent out the reusable inflatable balloons needed.

There is also a Concrete Canvas Shelter inflatable version, like Binishells. This offers an almost instant construction (one hour) with a lifespan of 10 years. Earth Berming is also possible i.e., covering with sand or earth fill to improve insulation. We need to take this technology to the next level to construct basic houses that last 30 years or more.

State governments must help to create basic construction standards for one level houses, and structural approval processes, albeit these are not needed for concrete canvas shelters. They must encourage awareness of such low-cost housing and even help the creation of online websites for commercial job bidding. After all, once trained, the same skill has commercial value.

  1. Skills Self-Sufficiency

Our schools and college system creates workers for factories, clerks for offices, the occasional manager, and leader. This education system meets the needs of modern-day economics. The focus is on GDP as opposed to Gross National Happiness (GNH), a measure used in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) states that “The (GNH) concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.” The GNH Index includes nine domains – psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

To align with GNH, we must adopt the self-sufficiency and minimalism concepts. We need the next generation to have the necessary skills for self-sufficiency. We want them to think minimalism. Start them young. Teach them intensive farming, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) construction, and homestay management for low-budget international backpacker tourism.

Governments need to create an alternative Secondary School four-year applied training path. This is from the 8th to the 12th standard. It would use local language online videos and live training, and apprenticeship (in all areas) to allow a certification program. This alternative schooling should be available to whoever wants it.

Governments currently do not recognize self-sufficiency as a human right. Doing so can provide an alternative economic model. We need to look at self-sufficiency in conjunction with international backpacker tourism. This will help to develop remote yet scenic places in the rural hinterlands. It would bring new skills to local populations through their interactions with outsiders. Self-sufficiency is not a challenge to existing economic models. In fact, it reinforces these developing, often ignored remote areas. This will also reflect in new demand for goods and services and in taxes. Hence, governments need to provide the necessary ecosystem for self-sufficiency to thrive.

[Tasheanna Williams edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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