Asymptotic Burnout, Benjamin Friedman, Climate Change, Dead Weight Loss, Degrowth, Fermi Paradox, Lewis M. Andrews, Limits to Growth, NIMBYism, Paul Ehrlich, Population Bomb, Poverty, regulation, Robert Colvile, Stakeholder Capitalism, State Capacity, Stubborn Attachments, Subsidies, Tax Distortions, Thomas Malthus, Tyler Cowan, Veronique de Rugy, Zero Growth
Growth is a human imperative and a good thing in every sense. We’ve long heard from naysayers, however, that growth will exhaust our finite resources, ending in starvation and the collapse of human civilization. They say, furthermore, that the end is nigh! It’s an old refrain. Thomas Malthus lent it credibility over 200 years ago (perhaps unintentionally), and we can pick on poor Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” thesis as a more modern starting point for this kind of hysteria. Lewis M. Andrews puts Ehrlich’s predictions in context:
“A year after the book’s publication, Ehrlich went on to say that this ‘utter breakdown’ in Earth’s capacity to support its bulging population was just fifteen years away. … For those of us still alive today, it is clear that nothing even approaching what Ehrlich predicted ever happened. Indeed, in the fifty-four years since his dire prophesy, those suffering from starvation have gone from one in four people on the planet to just one in ten, even as the world’s population has doubled.”
The “limits” argument comes from the environmental Left, but it creates for them an uncomfortable tradeoff between limiting growth and the redistribution of a fixed (they hope) or shrinking (more likely) pie. That’s treacherous ground on which to build popular support. It’s also foolish to stake a long-term political agenda on baldly exaggerated claims (and see here) about the climate and resource constraints. Ultimately, people will recognize those ominous forecasts as manipulative propaganda.
Last year, an academic paper argued that growing civilizations must eventually reach a point of “asymptotic burnout” due to resource constraints, and must undergo a “homeostatic awakening”: no growth. The authors rely on a “superlinear scaling” argument based on cross-sectional data on cities, and they offer their “burnout” hypothesis as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox: the puzzling quiet we observe in the universe while we otherwise expect it to be teeming with life… civilizations reach their “awakenings” before finding ways to communicate with, or even detect, their distant neighbors. I addressed this point and it’s weaknesses last year, but here I mention it only to demonstrate that the “limits to growth” argument lives on in new incarnations.
Growth-limiting arguments are tenuous on at least three fundamental grounds: 1) failure to consider the ability of markets to respond to scarcity; 2) underestimating the potential of human ingenuity not only to adapt to challenges, but to invent new solutions, exploit new resources, and use existing resources more efficiently; and 3) homeostasis is impossible because zero growth cannot be achieved without destructive coercion, suspension of cooperative market mechanisms, and losses from non-market (i.e., political and non-political) competition for the fixed levels of societal wealth and production.
The zero-growth world is one that lacks opportunities and rewards for honest creation of value, whether through invention or simple, hard work. That value is determined through the interaction of buyers and sellers in markets, the most effective form of voluntary cooperation and social organization ever devised by mankind. Those preferring to take spoils through the political sphere, or who otherwise compete on the basis of force, either have little value to offer or simply lack the mindset to create value to exchange with others at arms length.
As Robert Colvile writes in a post called “The Morality of Growth”:
“A society without growth is not just politically far more fragile. It is hugely damaging to people’s lives – and in particular to the young, who will never get to benefit from the kind of compounding, increasing prosperity their parents enjoyed.”
Expanding on this theme is commenter Slocum at the Marginal Revolution site, where Colvile’s essay was linked:
“Humans behave poorly when they perceive that the pie is fixed or shrinking, and one of the main drivers for behaving poorly is feelings of envy coming to the forefront. The way we encourage people not to feel envy (and to act badly) is not to try to change human nature, or ‘nudge’ them, but rather to maintain a state of steady improvement so that they (naturally) don’t feel envious, jealous, tribal, xenophobic etc. Don’t create zero-sum economies and you won’t bring out the zero-sum thinking and all the ills that go with it.”
And again, this dynamic leads not to zero growth (if that’s desired), but to decay. Given the political instability to which negative growth can lead, collapse is a realistic possibility.
I liked Colville’s essay, but it probably should have been titled “The Immorality of Non-Growth”. It covers several contemporary obstacles to growth, including the rise of “stakeholder capitalism”, the growth of government at the expense of the private sector, strangling regulation, tax disincentives, NIMBYism, and the ease with which politicians engage in populist demagoguery in establishing policy. All those points have merit. But if his ultimate purpose was to shed light on the virtues of growth, it seems almost as if he lost his focus in examining only the flip side of the coin. I came away feeling like he didn’t expend much effort on the moral virtues of growth as he intended, though I found this nugget well said:
“It is striking that the fastest-growing societies also tend to be by far the most optimistic about their futures – because they can visibly see their lives getting better.”
A far better discourse on growth’s virtues is offered by Veronique de Rugy in “The Greatness of Growth”. It should be obvious that growth is a potent tonic, but its range as a curative receives strangely little emphasis in popular discussion. First, de Rugy provides a simple illustration of the power of long-term growth, compound growth, in raising average living standards:
This is just a mechanical exercise, but it conveys the power of growth. At 2% real growth, real GDP per capital would double in 35 years and quadruple in 70 years. At 4% growth, real GDP would double in 18 years… less than a generation! It would quadruple in 35 years. If you’re just now starting a career, imagine nearing retirement at a standard of living four times as lavish as today’s senior employees (who make a lot more than you do now). We’ll talk a little more about how such growth rates might be achieved, but first, a little more on what growth can achieve.
The Rewards of Growth
Want to relieve poverty? There is no better and more permanent solution than economic growth. Here are some illustrations of this phenomenon:
Want to rein-in the federal budget deficit? Growth reduces the burden of the existing debt and shrinks fiscal deficits, though it might interfere with what little discipline spendthrift politicians currently face. We’ll have to find other fixes for that problem, but at least growth can insulate us from their profligacy.
And who can argue with the following?
“All the stuff an advocate anywhere on the political spectrum claims to value—good health, clean environment, safety, families and quality of life—depends on higher growth. …
There are other well-documented material consequences of modern economic growth, such as lower homicide rates, better health outcomes (babies born in the U.S. today are expected to live into their upper 70s, not their upper 30s as in 1860), increased leisure, more and better clothing and shelter, less food insecurity and so on.”
De Rugy argues convincingly that growth might well entail a greater boost in living standards for lower ranges of the socioeconomic spectrum than for the well-to-do. That would benefit not just those impoverished due to a lack of skills, but also those early in their careers as well as seniors attempting to earn extra income. For those with a legitimate need of a permanent safety net, growth allows society to be much more generous.
What de Rugy doesn’t mention is how growth can facilitate greater saving. In a truly virtuous cycle, saving is transformed into productivity-enhancing additions to the stock of capital. And not just physical capital, but human capital through investment in education as well. In addition, growth makes possible additional research and development, facilitating the kind of technical innovation that can sustain growth.
Getting Out of the Way of Growth
Later in de Rugy’s piece, she evaluates various ways to stimulate growth, including deregulation, wage and price flexibility, eliminating subsidies, less emphasis on redistribution, and simplifying the tax code. All these features of public policy are stultifying and involve dead-weight losses to society. That’s not to deny the benefits of adequate state capacity for providing true public goods and a legal and judicial system to protect individual rights. The issue of state capacity is a major impediment to growth in the less developed world, whereas countries in the developed world tend to have an excess of state “capacity”, which often runs amok!
In the U.S., our regulatory state imposes huge compliance costs on the private sector and effectively prohibits or destroys incentives for a great deal of productive (and harmless) activity. Interference with market pricing stunts growth by diverting resources from their most valued uses. Instead, it directs them toward uses that are favored by political elites and cronies. Subsidies do the same by distorting tradeoffs at a direct cost to taxpayers. Our system of income taxes is rife with behavioral distortions and compliance costs, bleeding otherwise productive gains into the coffers of accountants, tax attorneys, and bureaucrats. Finally, redistribution often entails the creation of disincentives, fostering a waste of human potential and a pathology of dependence.
Growth and Morality
Given the unequivocally positive consequences of growth to humanity, could the moral case for growth be any clearer? De Rugy quotes Benjamin Friedman’s “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”:
“Growth is valuable not only for our material improvement but for how it affects our social attitudes and our political institutions—in other words, our society’s moral character, in the term favored by the Enlightenment thinkers from whom so many of our views on openness, tolerance and democracy have sprung.”
De Rugy also paraphrases Tyler Cowen’s position on growth from his book “Stubborn Attachments”:
“… economic growth, properly understood, should be an essential element of any ethical system that purports to care about universal human well-being. In other words, the benefits are so varied and important that nearly everyone should have a pro-growth program at or near the top of their agenda.”
Agitation for “degrowth” is often made in good faith by truly frightened people. Better education would help them, but our educational establishment has been corrupted by the same ignorant narrative. When it comes to rulers, the fearful are no less tyrannical than power-hungry authoritarians. In fact, fear can be instrumental in enabling that kind of transformation in the personalities of activists. A basic failing is their inability to recognize the many ways in which growth improves well-being, including the societal wealth to enable adaptation to changing conditions and the investment necessary to enhance our range of technological solutions for mitigating existential risks. Not least, however, is the failure of the zero-growth movement to understand the cruelty their position condones in exchange for their highly speculative assurances that we’ll all be better off if we just do as they say. A terrible downside will be unavoidable if and when growth is outlawed.