Monday, July 18, 2022

Economic growth is a false idol; we need a steady-state economy

David Marchese, This Pioneering Economist Says Our Obsession With Growth Must End, NYTimes Magazine, July 17,2022.

But what about the counterintuitive possibility that our current pursuit of growth, rabid as it is and causing such great ecological harm, might be incurring more costs than gains? That possibility — that prioritizing growth is ultimately a losing game — is one that the lauded economist Herman Daly has been exploring for more than 50 years. In so doing, he has developed arguments in favor of a steady-state economy, one that forgoes the insatiable and environmentally destructive hunger for growth, recognizes the physical limitations of our planet and instead seeks a sustainable economic and ecological equilibrium. “Growth is an idol of our present system,” says Daly, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, a former senior economist for the World Bank [...] “Every politician is in favor of growth,” Daly, who is 84, continues, “and no one speaks against growth or in favor of steady state or leveling off. But I think it’s an elementary question to ask: Does growth ever become uneconomic?”

There’s an obvious logic to your fundamental argument in favor of a steady-state economy, which is that the economy, like everything else on the planet, is subject to physical limitations and the laws of thermodynamics and as such can’t be expected to grow forever. What’s less obvious is how our society would function in a world where the economic pie stops growing. [...] Is your view of human nature and our willingness to peacefully share the pie just more hopeful than his? First, I’m not against growth of wealth. I think it’s better to be richer than to be poorer. The question is, Does growth, as currently practiced and measured, really increase wealth? Is it making us richer in any aggregate sense, or might it be increasing costs faster than benefits and making us poorer? Mainstream economists don’t have any answer to that. The reason they don’t have any answer to that is that they don’t measure costs. They only measure benefits. That’s what G.D.P. is. There’s nothing subtracted from G.D.P.

What about undeveloped countries?

But how would a country continue to raise its standard of living without growing its G.D.P.? It’s a false assumption to say that growth is increasing the standard of living in the present world because we measure growth as growth in G.D.P. If it goes up, does that mean we’re increasing standard of living? We’ve said that it does, but we’ve left out all the costs of increasing G.D.P. We really don’t know that the standard is going up. If you subtract for the deaths and injuries caused by automobile accidents, chemical pollution, wildfires and many other costs induced by excessive growth, it’s not clear at all. Now what I just said is most true for richer countries. Certainly for some other country that’s struggling for subsistence then, by all means, G.D.P. growth increases welfare. They need economic growth. That means that the wealthy part of the world has to make ecological room for the poor to catch up to an acceptable standard of living. That means cutting back on per capita consumption, that we don’t hog all the resources for trivial consumption.

On the need for global cooperation.

Let’s say that tomorrow the United States government says it recognizes the need for ecological balance and is going to de-emphasize growth. Wouldn’t every other country have to make the same decision for it to have the desired ecological effect? That’s a very difficult question. If you try to enact laws for counting the ecological costs of your production in the United States and then you enter into trading relations with another country that does not count the costs, they have a competitive advantage. They may ruin themselves in the long run, but in the short run they’re going to undersell you. This creates huge problems for the free traders because the answer to the problem is to have a tariff to protect the U.S. industry. At one time I would have tended to favor moving toward a global government. I don’t know what changed my mind. Perhaps spending six years at the World Bank made me think that global governance looks like a chimera. [...] we have a world of interdependent nations, which are fundamentally separate but try to be cooperative. That’s the model that we’re stuck with. So the best road forward is for nations to try to move toward a steady state and accept the fact that you’re going to need to have some tariffs and hope that the resulting benefits are sufficient to convince other nations to follow suit.

There is more at the link.

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