Thursday, January 14, 2016

"Growth", "Degrowth" and the Critique of Growth

In a post titled "De-growthers in Suits," Peter Dorman dishonestly conflates the objectives of "de-growth" with the outcomes of austerity policy. I use the term dishonestly advisedly. The rationale and the rhetoric of austerity is that it promotes growth. Never mind whether the advocates of austerity are sincere or whether austerity policies are successful in achieving growth. Growth is their mantra.

The term de-growth is the occasion of some consternation among those who might be labeled de-growthers. It became popular as a literal translation of the name of a French political party, Parti Decroissance, whose name was partly tongue in cheek and somewhat of a play on words. That nuance doesn't translate with English neologism.

Let us be quite firm that there is no stumbling in suggesting policies for so-called degrowth. There are many policy outcomes that could result in an improvement in human welfare without adding to GDP. There are even potential improvements that would subtract from GDP.

Horrors! We can't have that kind of thing!

Yes, less crime, less cancer and world peace would diminish GDP. So? So what? Parents being enabled to stay at home to look after young children might diminish GDP compared to making them work (workfare) and arranging commercial child care.


Thornton Hall said...

In political debates some confused souls assert, without evidence, that it is wrong to accuse members of the GOP of bad faith. Some are confused, but some in the GOP genuinely want to hurt poor people.

The admonishion does seem rather more justified here.

If someone is making a different point, then... someone is making a different point.

When Marxists get going they frequently forget that the masses of humanity they label as "capital" and "labor" are composed of, remarkably, individual humans.

This fact is inconvenient, but true. It leads to the following conundrum: how do you find out what people believe when you are morally opposed to talking to "capital"?

Les Baker said...

I did not find anything dishonest in Peter Dorman's comment. I took his narrow point to be something like this: If one is intent on making the value of Y smaller over time, and has not thought much about how one goes about doing it, then implementing austerity policy would surely accomplish one's goal.

His broader point may be that making Y smaller will surely immiserate a large, large mass of human beings, and that mass will not freely submit to any policy that promises them it will do so. On the other hand,changing the composition of Y could conceivably avoid such immiseration, while also improving the climate situation, and the social and human environments generally. In short, I understand his message to be that Y does not need to be made smaller, it needs to be made different.

What's dishonest about that? It's a point of view, consistent with his previous statements.

Sandwichman said...


I assume you don't teach this at university and thus may be forgiven for not being up to date with the literature. If Peter Dorman's assigned readings actually presented the two options he claimed they did, then he has either framed the issue with a remarkably poor choice of readings or he has misrepresented the arguments of those sources. Since Peter doesn't identify the assigned readings, it is impossible to know which is the case.

Whether "Y" needs to be made "larger" or "smaller" is a question that cannot be answered if one does not know what the heck "Y" is and whether the units in which it is purportedly measured are consistent over time. See the discussion of GDP by Blair Fix in "Economic Growth as a Power Process Ross"

If Peter could point out the flaws in Fix's argument, that would greatly strengthen his own point and would be a service to his readers. If he would prefer to keep hippy-punching unidentified straw man anti-growth arguments, that's fundamentally dishonest.

I won't deny there are poorly-argued arguments in favor of "shrinking" the economy on the facile grounds that "degrowth" is the opposite of "growth" both economically and ecologically. But as Pigou pointed out long ago, just because there may be poor arguments for a given policy doesn't mean that there aren't better arguments for it.

Peter Dorman teaches these issues at a university, as do I. We have a professional responsibility not to misrepresent the arguments we disagree with (although I understand there is a tribal tradition in economics of disparaging ideas that don't conform to the conventional wisdom consensus).

Les Baker said...


If this blog is only intended for people who teach economics at universities, then I should probably just refrain from ever commenting here again. As it happens, I'm not an economist at all, just an old retired lawyer who follows this site because it discusses issues that interest me.

When it comes to discussions of the professional responsibilities of those who practice a profession other than I own, I feel like I'm reading someone else's mail. Excuse me for barging in, because that's what it appears I did.

Sandwichman said...

My comment was not meant as a criticism of you, Les. I was only trying to point out that there is an extensive scholarly literature that a professor teaching courses in ecological economics should be familiar with but that may not be known by a non-specialist. There is even a journal named Ecological Economics that has frequent articles discussing the concept of "degrowth."

Below is a list of 20 articles from the journal that have the word degrowth in the title. Another 63 articles mention or discuss degrowth.

Microeconomic degrowth: The case of Community Supported Agriculture
Ecological Economics, Volume 112, April 2015, Pages 110-115
Marjolijn Bloemmen, Roxana Bobulescu, Nhu Tuyen Le, Claudio Vitari

Capitalist diversity and de-growth trajectories to steady-state economies
Ecological Economics, Volume 106, October 2014, Pages 167-173
Hubert Buch-Hansen

Is eco-village/urban village the future of a degrowth society? An urban planner's perspective
Ecological Economics, Volume 105, September 2014, Pages 130-138
Jin Xue

Solutions to the crisis? The Green New Deal, Degrowth, and the Solidarity Economy: Alternatives to the capitalist growth economy from an ecofeminist economics perspective
Ecological Economics, Volume 102, June 2014, Pages 60-68
Christine Bauhardt

The economic and financial dimensions of degrowth
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 49-56
Damir Tokic

The economics of degrowth
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 172-180
Giorgos Kallis, Christian Kerschner, Joan Martinez-Alier

Measuring progress in the degrowth transition to a steady state economy
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 221-231
Daniel W. O'Neill

Bona diagnosis, bona curatio: How property economics clarifies the degrowth debate
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 262-269
Pascal van Griethuysen

“This is a bit of the good life”: Recognition of unpaid work from the perspective of degrowth
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 240-246
Linda Nierling

Growth, degrowth and climate change: A scenario analysis
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 206-212
Peter A. Victor

Long-run welfare under externalities in consumption, leisure, and production: A case for happy degrowth vs. unhappy growth
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 194-205
Ennio Bilancini, Simone D'Alessandro

Ecological economics, degrowth, and institutional change
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 247-253
Kent A. Klitgaard, Lisi Krall

In defence of degrowth
Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15 March 2011, Pages 873-880
Giorgos Kallis

Sustainable de-growth: Mapping the context, criticisms and future prospects of an emergent paradigm
Ecological Economics, Volume 69, Issue 9, 15 July 2010, Pages 1741-1747
Joan Martínez-Alier, Unai Pascual, Franck-Dominique Vivien, Edwin Zaccai

Can de-growth be considered a policy option? A historical note on Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the Club of Rome
Ecological Economics, Volume 69, Issue 11, 15 September 2010, Pages 2271-2278
Clément Levallois

From Bioeconomics to DeGrowth: Georgescu-Roegen's 'New Economics' in Eight Essays, Mauro Bonaiuti (Ed.). Routledge, London (2011), ISBN: 9780415587006
Ecological Economics, Volume 94, October 2013, Pages 165-166
David Barkin

Degrowth and the supply of money in an energy-scarce world
Ecological Economics, Volume 84, December 2012, Pages 187-193
Richard Douthwaite

Environment versus growth — A criticism of “degrowth” and a plea for “a-growth”
Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15 March 2011, Pages 881-890
Jeroen C.J.M. van den Bergh

The degrowth proposal Farewell to Growth, S. Latouche. Polity Press (2009)
Ecological Economics, Volume 70, Issue 5, 15 March 2011, Pages 1016-1017
Giorgos Kallis

(De)growth and welfare in an equilibrium model with heterogeneous consumers
Ecological Economics, Volume 116, August 2015, Pages 330-340
T. Heikkinen

Anonymous said...

I gave seen this anti-'de-growth' 'meme' around insome 'leftist' type circles (eg in papers from 'peri' u mass amherst---long considered a radical econ dept, and in jacobin magazine affiliated people). many if them seem to support some sort of 'organizing approach'---usually around socialism. Ie first, you get rid of current 'capitalist system' and associated socioeconomic inequalities , and then (since they recognize environmental/finite resources issues) one deals with making the economy sustainable in some sense.

too often this appears to be a conveniant choice---they dont want to have to look at their consumption patterns (which tend to be on the upscale side of things) , but would rather other people focus instead on organizing/unionizing workers at walmart, in the various transportation hubs (which carry all the 'goods;' everyone buys of various sorts). (They want to have naomi klein style bestsellers, etc.)

I see this though also a bit in degrowthers like (herman daly etc.) The idea is to fly around the world giving speeches on why we should cut consumption (such as travel) and live simply.

They may be right in a sense---one has to get the idea out there, and sometimes having a big pulpit is one way to do it.

There is a point to the 'anti' arguments. There are still many poor people internationally and even in the usa. Also, there are difficulties with degrowth---politically, fossil fuels likely could be phased out but as LBJ said about socialism, we could do it tomorrow if we had the votes. Almost people think more about sports and hollywood and apple computers than degrowtth, besides getting a better jon and through the day. There are also logistic problems with voluntary simplicity---eg one recent study from U Wash discussed difficulties with making Seattle basically operating off of urban agriculture for food (not to mention Microsoft, Lockhheed martin, and U wasghington's biotech bases).

Degrowth has been an idea around since thoreau, brooks farm, schumaker, bookchin, etc. Its amazing one even needs to mention it. I admit when i came across Ecological Economics J in a library i was was amazed we needed one more economic journal. (also, half of it was not very impressive). but standard ones likely said they had no room in their pages for these ideas. People have to grow their CVs.