AMERICA THE POSSIBLE: A MANIFESTO FOR A NEW ECONOMY by James Gustave Speth
Reviewed by Alexis Schulman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth, Yale University Press, 272pp
In the opening of his new book, America the Possible: A Manifesto for a New Economy, James Gustave (Gus) Speth—once called the “consummate environmental insider”—makes a startling claim. After nearly four decades moving seamlessly between the worlds of nonprofits, academia, and government, Speth has concluded that working “inside the system” has failed. Solving the slew of environmental and social ills facing the United States, he argues, requires nothing less than profoundly altering their driving force: our political economy.
For those who doubt that America is struggling, Speth kicks off his manifesto with a disturbing summary of America’s “firsts.” Among all OECD nations, he notes, the United States ranks number one in inequality of incomes, homicide rate, poverty rate, prison population, and international arm sales. And these are just a handful of many other undesirables. However, Speth aims less to sway skeptics than to rally the believers—those desirous of a more just, fair, and sustainable future. With remarkable comprehensiveness and clarity, America the Possible lays out the problems with our system, a vision for the future, as well as the required economic and political reforms. At the core of his vision, is a reigning in of the economic growth imperative. Drawing on the work of economist Herman Daly, Speth envisions a steady state economy, where resource consumption and population growth are reduced within ecological limits; and where economic policies seek to maximize quality of life, not quantity of output.
Speth rightly aligns his arguments with similar narratives emerging from the coalescing new economy movement. Indeed, America the Possible often reads as a Who’s Who of the movement’s rising stars (of which Speth is one), and is replete with their theories and projects, such as the democratization of wealth through stakeholder-owned companies, proposals for 100 percent reserve requirements, and reductions in work hours. Speth’s book provides one of the best new economic primers out there. The only drawback is that Speth’s own insights and cultivated wisdom are frequently lost in the mix. His voice is most original when discussing how to build the political movement to see these reforms forward. This is an important and frequently under-articulated issue, and it is clear that here Speth is drawing on his own lessons learned. But ultimately, one wishes for more of these moments.