Wednesday, January 13, 2016

De-Growthers in Suits

This happened in class the other day.  There was a discussion of the anti-growth position taken by some environmentalists.  The assigned reading said that, broadly speaking, there are two theoretical options, to either resist economic growth in the interest of sustainability or prioritize growth but adopt various regulatory and technological palliatives to try to avoid ecological harm.  The authors clearly favored option #1.  The claim was made that, despite its virtues, this option was uniformly rejected by those in power, whose ideological blinders wedded them to never-ending growth.

I raised my hand.  When called on, I pointed out that, while not explicitly motivated by an anti-growth philosophy, those in power have repeatedly adopted policies whose effect is to render growth unlikely or impossible, especially in Europe but to some extent also in the US and elsewhere.  De-growthers stumble when asked what measures to take, but the most powerful instrument is right there in front of them: austerity.


Myrtle Blackwood said...

Re: "De-growthers stumble when asked what measures to take, but the most powerful instrument is right there in front of them: austerity."

And, of course, it's now very very obvious (with abrupt and extremely dangerous climate change now upon the world) that 'growth' has led, not just to increasing poverty, but to the 6th great extinction. The latter may include ours, and within our lifetime.

What is 'austerity'? What is 'growth'? What is 'economic development'. We have words, but very little meaning. So we have logics like: GDP could be reduced by a vast increase in home production and local markets. GDP could be reduced by fewer people getting sick because they're exercising in their gardens and eating fresh organic produce. GDP could be reduced by recycling, reducing superfluous and dangerous consumption and (thus) sustaining life on our planet ...etc

How twisted has the economic dialogue become.

So-called de-growthers shouldn't have a problem at all describing the measures to take for well being and a chance at continued life on this planet.

Sandwichman said...

"De-growthers stumble when asked what measures to take, but the most powerful instrument is right there in front of them: austerity."

Not true. Not even close. There is a lot of consternation among critics of the growth imperative about the "d" word. It is a literal translation from the French without the nuance. The idea is not literally putting a minus sign in front of growth.

Peter Victor and Tim Jackson don't stumble describing measures to be taken. Mario Giampietro has some other ideas. I have proposals that involve growth as a transition to, shall we say, "a-growth."

But at any rate, austerity is a policy option whose proponents put it forward explicitly as a GROWTH strategy. Never mind whether they are sincere or successful or not, that is their rationale.

One would think that a real critic of austerity would want to expose the fraud inherent in rewarding privilege in the name of growth. Apparently, though, my learned friend has other fish to fry. Never mind the plunder and deception being exercised by those in power. The real enemies are those cartoon hippies mouthing a slogan that needs no further elucidation. Punch them! Exterminate the brutes!

media said...

Austerity might be ok if it included the top 20% or so. Or it could be sliding scale---i know plenty of poor people who basically buy alot of junk products which they dont need, and are even bad for them. The reference to Peter Victor is a good one. There are plenty of others in that class---doing real analyses of options. Unofrtunately alot of people do not read them (though things like solar panels, urban gardening, recycling , bicycle lanes which are somewhat minimal do trickle into practice). I think its really an 'inditement' of the educational system and intellectual culture that most of this stuff is not seen as common sense, and that so-called students and intellectuals even have to discuss them at the most basic level. But this is a culture and world in which people still have huge discussions on whether god exists, and if so which one, or if science contradicts that, or is compatible. Most of these discussions of course are aided using the most advanced current computer technology----sortuh like those jihadi / isis videos. People have degrees in computer science, and use them to promote ancient theocracy and holy texts as true. And universities typically are willing to accept money from any one who can pay, whatver its used for.

(I noticed one of the prominent adovcactes of a universal basic income is now teaching in one of those small mideastern oil kingdoms---places where all the work is done by bangladeshi immigrants who sometimes arent even paid.)

Sandwichman said...

"De-growthers stumble when asked what measures to take..."

Stumble? Here is John Gowdy's paraphrase of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen's "minimal bioeconomic program":

1 the complete prohibition of weapons production, thereby releasing productive forces for more constructive purposes;

2 immediate aid to underdeveloped nations;

3 gradual decrease in population to a level that could be maintained only by organic agriculture;

4 avoidance, and strict regulation if necessary, of wasteful energy use;

5 abandon our attachment to "extravagant gadgetry";

6 "get rid of fashion";

7 make goods more durable and repairable; and

8 cure ourselves of workaholic habits by rebalancing the time spent on work and leisure, a shift that will become incumbent as the effects of the other changes make themselves felt.

Peter Dorman said...

Like I say. I would sign on to most items in this program, but I don't see how it prevents economic growth. In fact, item #2 would almost certainly be growth-enhancing, and not only in poor countries.

This is not a degrowth agenda. It is about what is produced and for whom, not how much. The only pieces that might have a growth-reducing impact are #3 and #8. Reducing population by a fraction of a percent a year would have little effect on growth rates (although transitional changes in the age structure would be more consequential for shorter periods as an element of "secular stagnation"). Reductions in the work week, which I think would be wonderful, are one-off reallocations of productivity growth and do not alter economic growth between them. Also, historical experience shows that reduced hours nearly pay for themselves in offsetting productivity effects.

Sandwichman said...

"This is not a degrowth agenda."

Exactly! That's what I have been trying to point out. The word "degrowth" or "de-growth" is a misnomer. It is an English translation of a French translation of the word "decline" in Georgescu-Roegen's article. Latouche even admitted that "a-growth" would be a better term.

The point is to do things differently and not be constrained by the criteria of whether or not they boost growth. It would be foolish (and contrary to the main argument) to be constrained by a rule that every measure diminish the GDP.

My own estimate is that #1, 5 & 6 would reduce growth but only temporarily. #2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 would, in my view, tend to increase growth in the short to medium run but, except for #2, reduce it substantially it in the long run.

I am agnostic as to whether the GDP is growing or shrinking during or after the transition but I am persuaded that there has to be a transition away from an economy that is addicted to growth. Georgescu-Roegen's point was that growth of GDP WILL stop at some point in the future whether we want it to or not, whether we plan for it or not. Climate change, accelerating inequality and political instability make the transition more urgent perhaps than Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome may have anticipated.

Sandwichman said...

One way to think about the horrible term "degrowth" is to compare it with the term "depoliticize." Depoliticizing policy making sounds like it would be a good thing. Take the "dirty politics" out of decision making! What depoliticization means in practice, though, is reserving decision making to elites and excluding the hoi-polloi.

The growth imperative depoliticizes policy making by positing economic growth as an objective criteria of improvement. Pareto improvement with potential compensation! Of course to do the compensation would be political (that is, dirty) so... "de-growth" is better understood as aimed at de-de-politicization, de-mystifying the Pareto-improvement potential-but-never-real compensation scam.