Wellbeing over greed

A carbon and resource budget per person should be considered. I’m not one to spout simplistic solutions, but a social, ecological and economic transition to a sustainable economy based on wellbeing, instead of growth is a must

Last weekend’s newspapers headlined the Finance Minister's predictions of 800,000 people by 2040 in Malta should the economy keep growing at the current pace. What Clyde Caruana did not tell us is that an economy based on low wage labour was his idea.

The Nationalist leader then chimed in and went for tropes that reminded me of the far-right ‘replacement’ conspiracy theory and the ‘loss of the Maltese language’. But that’s a subject for another article.

Both are irresponsible. Clyde Caruana because he is the Finance Minister presiding over this mess, Bernard Grech because he took the opportunity to spout despicable rhetoric.

The truth is that policies of economic growth at all costs are starting to sound hollow now that the country has gone far beyond its ecological and social limits. A runaway laissez-faire economy means a deteriorating quality of life for all. A €100 cheque will not make a difference. Greed only benefits the very few.

How did all this start? It is difficult to pinpoint an exact period of time, however most remember the boasting about the increase in cars on our roads as a sign of ‘progress’, despite the increase in pollution. Few steps were taken to improve sustainable mobility options when things were much easier to change, when we had not reached the gridlock we reached today. The contempt for ecologists in the 1990s was palpable.

Then we had the mantra of how ‘essential’ the construction industry is to the economy, with things coming to a head in 2006 when a huge amount of land was given over for development. Indeed, we are still suffering the consequences of that decision today. Nigret in Żurrieq comes to mind. The false reasoning is that ‘demand’ should be created to keep the economy going. The concept of limits, of ‘enough’, has been absent from government policy for decades. Joseph Muscat despite the jazzed-up 2013 campaign on ‘change’, had in fact accelerated his predecessors’ development frenzy, increased building heights all over, refused to change local plans, and based the economy even more on imported labour and shady schemes. Probably he got his ideas from Dubai. Robert Abela, the Planning Authority’s legal adviser when the Nationalists came up with the 2006 destructive ‘rationalisation scheme’ is no better.

It is clear that government does not give a damn about the conditions imported workers are living in; they are the cogs in the wheels of their economic ‘miracle’ after all. When will they at least put in some rules regulating greedy property owners? When will they put a stop to massive building projects? They cannot do that, because they promised greed to a few but sizeable number of voters. The property and rental market is a stark example of how economic growth does not increase wellbeing, neither for temporary labour, nor for Maltese citizens and residents. Government policy suits the few, but otherwise makes decent homes unaffordable. A decent home is a right, property speculation is not. Will they reign in speculation? Alas, there are too many ministers and MPs who engage in speculation for them to give a hoot.

Then there is the international tax evasion (euphemistically called tax planning or avoidance) schemes and the sale of passports. In a country where citizenship is at the discretion of the minister, it is easier to be rich and buy a Maltese passport then if you are a child born in Malta and probably speak better Maltese than some of this country’s natives.

But of course, Robert Abela would not be able to make some pocket money out of the Maltese kid born here from Serbian parents because they cannot afford to rent a villa from him like oligarch Russian passport buyers do. This is their mentality, an economy which is not based on creating something useful to society, offering some needed service, and contributing to the ecological transition, but based on bubbles and dubious activities from speculation, to enabling international tax evasion and the selling of citizenship.

Economist Kate Raworth explains the effects of a growth at all costs mentality succinctly in the freely available online publication ‘Imagining Europe Beyond Growth’: “When governments pursue growth as a goal in itself, they undertake desperate and damaging measures to make it happen. They chase cheap energy and keep issuing licences for fossil fuels and opening coal mines. They say they’re cutting red tape in the name of business innovation, but they end up undermining legislation that protects the rights of workers, protects communities and the health of a living world. They deregulate finance and unleash speculative bubbles. And they privatise public services and turn public wealth into private profit.”

It is more than obvious that economic growth is not reflected in wage growth. We need to reign in resource use, incentivise sustainable businesses instead of subsidising energy waste, and make sure that reasonable and fair taxes are paid by everyone. A shift to financial and property speculation taxes, and resource and pollution taxes should be discussed in detail. Those who overconsume, play the markets and pollute most should pay the most, for society to put things right.

Hoarding of resources, financial or otherwise should be discouraged. The good thing with speculation and resource taxes is that people can reduce their tax by being responsible citizens. Responsible people should be rewarded with better public services and adjustments in income tax for the lower paid. A carbon and resource budget per person should be considered. I’m not one to spout simplistic solutions, but a social, ecological and economic transition to a sustainable economy based on wellbeing, instead of growth is a must.