Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sandwichman Reads the Footnotes (so you don't have to)

by the Sandwichman

The title of my last post was a composite allusion to The Rise and Fall of Economic Growth by H.W. Arndt (1978)and to chapter nine of Fred Hirsch's Social Limits to Growth (1976): "Political Keynesianism and the Managed Market." In his Managing Without Growth, Peter Victor cited Arndt's book extensively in his retelling of the short history of economic growth as prime policy objective.

Arndt concluded his book with a somewhat optimistic, albeit qualified, assessment of growth -- "the realistic question to ask is not whether further economic growth is possible or desirable, or even how rapid it should be, but what kind of growth we should aim at." In discussion "the right kind of economic growth," he footnoted Hirsch's book, "While this present book was in press, the implications for economic growth as a policy objective of 'positional competition' have been spelled out much more fully in an important and exciting book..." (which would have been clearer if he had stated it as "...the implications of 'positional competition' for economic growth as a policy objective have been spelled out...").

Admittedly, there is some discussion going on of what kind of spending is desirable in a stimulus package. But this is neither a secondary question nor a transitory one. It is, as Arndt termed it, the realistic question. When the question becomes "what kind of growth" instead of "how much growth," then some things that have in the past been growing may come to be excluded from the calculus as kinds of growth we don't actually want because they don't benefit society and they impose unacceptable costs on the environment, sociability, etc. It could even be that the sum total of those expendable kinds of growth results in a decline in Gross Domestic Product, which at any rate is not a good measure of social welfare.

Hitherto the "weapon of mass destruction" in defense of economic growth has always been the assumption that only through continued and fairly brisk growth could full employment be attained. That assumption is not tenable for two reasons. One, the political linkage between growth and full employment has been broken... and it has been broken by proponents of growth. Two, the claim to exclusivity relies on the reactionary political assertion that work-time reduction cannot play a positive role in maintaining full employment. That assertion is groundless.

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