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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Mort Todd

Stubborn Detachment

Economists’ myopic growth cult can’t cope with environmental realities…

The whole experience had been so bewildering to him that he put it out of mind as soon as possible, but he had dreams about it for months afterwards, nightmares. Saemtenevia Prospect was two miles long, and it was a solid mass of people, traffic, and things: things to buy, things for sale. Coats, dresses, gowns, robes, trousers, breeches, shirts, blouses, hats, shoes, stockings, scarves, shawls, vests, capes, umbrellas, clothes to wear while sleeping, while swimming, while playing games, while at an afternoon party, while at an evening party, while at a party in the country, while traveling, while at the theater, while riding horses, gardening, receiving guests, boating, dining, hunting — all different, all in hundreds of different cuts, styles, colors, textures, materials. Perfumes, clocks, lamps, statues, cosmetics, candles, pictures, cameras, games, vases, sofas, kettles, puzzles, pillows, dolls, colanders, hassocks, jewels, carpets, toothpicks, calendars, a baby’s teething rattle of platinum with a handle of rock crystal, an electrical machine to sharpen pencils, a wrist-watch with diamond numerals; figurines and souvenirs and kickshaws and mementos and gewgaws and bric-a-brac, everything either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use; acres of luxuries, acres of excrement. In the first block Shevek had stopped to look at a shaggy, spotted coat, the central display in a glittering window of clothes and jewelry, “The coat costs 8,400 units?” he asked in disbelief, for he had recently read in a newspaper that a “living wage” was about 2,000 units a year. “Oh, yes, that’s real fur, quite rare now that the animals are protected,” Pae had said. “Pretty thing, isn’t it? Women love furs.” And they went on. After one more block Shevek had felt utterly exhausted. He could not look any more. He wanted to hide his eyes.

And the strangest thing about the nightmare street was that none of the millions of things for sale were made there. They were only sold there. Where were the workshops, the factories, where were the farmers, the craftsmen, the miners, the weavers, the chemists, the carvers, the dyers, the designers, the machinists, where were the hands, the people who made? Out of sight, somewhere else. Behind walls. All the people in all the shops were either buyers or sellers. They had no relation to the things but that of possession.

He found that once they had his measure he could order anything else he might need by telephone, and he determined never to go back to the nightmare street.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed

Once upon a time there was a village, and in that village there was a tinkerer. And the tinkerer built machines, usually not very useful ones (an automatic bread-butterer, a cuckoo clock that screamed). One day, however, he invented a machine more marvelous than any other. You could take any object around you, put it in the funnel, press a button, and it would be turned into another, more useful object. Pop in a log, get a table. Dump in some precious metals and get a microchip. Put in an adorable piglet, get a tasty sausage. Anything could be improved. The machine transformed the town. Soon, things were being transformed into other things left and right. The clay was turned into porcelain, the piles of stray rags into fashionable suits. More machines were built, so that more transformations could happen faster. When people got something out of the machine, they put it back in, along with anything else they could find, to make something even better. One day, an economist showed up in the town. The people gathered round the economist, to hear what they ought to do:

“Everything that comes out of the machine is better, therefore if you care about improving the world you are morally obligated to build as many machines as possible, and put every single object into the machines, and then put the products of the machines back into the machines, and so on indefinitely. In this way you will maximize the welfare of future generations.”

The people could see no flaw in the economist’s reasoning, so they devoted themselves to the machines. Some spent their lives working at all costs to increase the speed and capacity of the machines, and they suffered greatly in the process. The machines produced some extraordinary things, which made many people happy (though paradoxically the people who obtained most of the things were not the people who had worked the hardest on the machines). All values went out the window except filling the machines. People were cruel and selfish. Fixable social problems were ignored, because fixing them would divert resources away from filling the machines. This did not matter, the economist reassured them: Everyone was better off with the machines than they would otherwise have been.

Eventually, something disquieting began to happen. After a few dozen cycles through the machine, the objects they made did not seem much better. They kept building machines, and putting things through them, and putting things through them again. The suits became slightly better suits, the food slightly better food.

Then the villagers looked around, and realized they had literally killed every animal on earth, made millions of people live lives of needless toil and misery, and destroyed every last piece of plant and animal life in order to fill the fucking stupid machines. And so they thrust the economist into the funnel, and began slowly to rebuild their world. The end.

Illustration by Mort Todd.

Libertarian economist Tyler Cowen’s new book Stubborn Attachments argues that “growth is good.” In fact, growth is so good that we should subordinate virtually all other moral values to the maximization of the GDP. He appears to be serious about this.

Here is the structure of Cowen’s argument: We know that countries with higher GDPs have, on average, more health, education, happiness, life expectancy, etc. than countries with lower GDPs. Happiness is a good thing. He says:

Even if you don’t regard material wealth as central to human well-being, economic growth brings many other values including, for instance, much greater access to the arts and sciences. The virtues of the modern world depend on higher and indeed growing levels of wealth. Growth alleviates misery, improves happiness and opportunity, and lengthens lives.

Cowen adds that when we think about what we ought to do morally, we shouldn’t just think about how to help people today. There is no moral difference between someone today and someone in the far distant future, say a million years from now. A person is a person whether they live in 2019 or 4046 or the year 9 million. That means, however, that we should spend most of our effort trying to maximize economic growth now, because (as with compounding interest) the benefits in the far future will be astronomical. As he writes:

Our strongest obligations are to contribute to sustainable economic growth and to support the general spread of civilization, rather than to engage in massive charitable redistribution in the narrower sense. In the longer run, greater economic growth and a more stable civilization will help the poor most of all.

Cowen argues that a resulting moral imperative should be the recognition of any processes that create growing wealth for the future, giving “free lunches” to future generations who do not themselves have to do anything to benefit from them. Borrowing from the great University of Chicago economist Frank Knight, he refers to “Crusonia plants,” imaginary easy-to-cultivate plants that produce fruit plus seeds of more plants every generation. The conclusion is that Crusonia plants should be a priority for us to create, since they will benefit future generations so greatly. Cowen then surveys the world for “analogues” to Crusonia plants, being “ongoing, self-sustaining, and which create rising value over time.” His conclusion is a perfect picture of the parody of intelligence economists revere: “The natural candidate for such a process is economic growth,” with market investments in production building higher production levels over time. Notably, he does not consider that an analogue to the Crusonia plant could be actual plants, which themselves do produce inherently growing streams of benefits over time. (It’s amusing that he refers to economic growth as the “natural” candidate, rather than actual nature.)

Cowen quotes favorably an economist who said that “The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are staggering: once one starts to think about [exponential growth], it is hard to think about anything else.” Cowen takes this quite seriously: He looks at every human social problem in terms of what it means for economic growth. Martin Luther King, he says, had a net positive impact, because he “brought much good to the world with respect to both justice and economic growth.” If King had had a negative impact on economic growth, Cowen’s verdict on the Civil Rights Movement might have been different. When it comes to policies that help the worst-off, Cowen’s main question is: But do they grow the economy? He says that “we should redistribute wealth only up to the point that it maximizes the rate of sustainable growth,” and growth defines the “appropriate nature and scope” of redistribution. “Some degree” of redistribution may be justified, but only because individuals that are less poor and better educated are “more likely to be productive and pay taxes, and less likely to overturn public order,” and “cementing the social order” through “social welfare programs [that] buy the loyalties of special interest groups” can clear the way for more economic growth.

The implications of this philosophy are radical, though Cowen does not actually discuss them much. First, it means that gross social inequality is perfectly justified if it enhances growth. In fact, Cowen even considers it reasonable to ponder whether we should redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich, since the rich are likely to make investments that better improve economic growth and thereby serve the well-being of those “Many people mock the term ‘trickle-down economics’ but most social benefits do take a trickle-down form,” he says. This means that there is no fundamental problem with being absurdly rich—in fact, we should probably be grateful to the billionaire overlords for their benevolent innovation and job-creation. We’re morally a-okay as long as we “work hard, take care of or families, and live virtuous but self-centered lives while giving to charity as we are able and helping out others on a periodic basis.” The latter part about giving to others Cowen leaves vague, and he makes clear that it’s okay to be very self-interested as long as you do a bit of minor mitigation here and there, and he repeatedly praises Ayn Rand. The main moral imperative is growth, which means you’re probably a better person if you escalate production at the smartphone factory than if you found an orphanage (except to the extent that the orphans will someday be producers and taxpayers).

The many available variations of poop emoji pool float that one can purchase…

Notably, Cowen is truly worthless on the subject of inequality too, again and again describing “growth for us,” and “our living standards,” and even claiming “recent world history has been an extraordinarily egalitarian time” even though wealth and income inequality are exploding. Specifically, Cowen argues for “strict limits” on redistribution of wealth, claiming “we should redistribute wealth only up to the point that it maximizes the rate of sustainable economic growth,” since ongoing growth creates wealth for everyone, avoiding the messy government bureaucracy needed for redistributing wealth, along with the chance of redistribution creating “urban cultures of dependency and crime.” But as current research by UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez indicates, the majority of income increases from new economic growth are concentrated in the richest one percent of U.S. families, specifically debunking Cowen’s whole dumb point. The wonderful new wealth being created by Crusonia plants creating a global extinction is in large part going to the one percent, creating more heinously spoiled ruling-class douchebags like Bezos and Trump, and their even-worse born-rich kids.

But what growth actually is, and how it could be decomposed into “better” and “worse” constituent parts, Cowen does not discuss much. Measures of economic growth, of course, are just the sum total of production in a society, but that doesn’t tell you whether you’re producing fruity cocktails or atomic weapons. This is why many serious economic thinkers have rejected using production growth as the core metric for whether a society is well-off. It’s highly imprecise, and you are better off measuring happiness or people’s capacity to fulfill their desires. After all, GDP can increase even as people are made worse off. Jeremy Lent quotes the words of Raimundo Brago Gomes, an indigenous Brazilian who was forced off his land to make room for a new hydroelectric complex. Brago Gomes has actually gotten “richer” by measures of growth, but that’s not how he feels about it:

I didn’t need money to live happy. My whole house was nature… I had my patch of land where I planted a bit of everything, all sorts of fruit trees. I’d catch my fish, make manioc flour… I raised my three daughters, proud of what I was. I was rich.

Lent says that now Brago Gomes and his family “live among drug dealers behind barred windows in Brazil’s most violent city, receiving a state pension which, after covering rent and electricity, leaves him about 50 cents a day to feed himself, his wife, daughter, and grandson. Meanwhile, as a result of his family’s forced entry into the monetary economy, Brazil’s GDP has risen.”

Importantly, Gross Domestic Product itself, the main conventional metric for measuring the economic growth Cowen celebrates, arose in the US during the Great Depression to help keep track of industrial production. At that time, it was recognized to be a highly incomplete indicator, with its creator, economist Simon Kuznets, cautioning that its mathematical precision masked great complexity in the actual subject.

Issues like these are why economists like Amartya Sen have tried to develop far more sophisticated measurements of economic success, such as whether people have “positive liberties.” Cowen bizarrely rejects these approaches, saying that “the concept of positive liberties is important, but it is already covered in the imperative to maximize sustainable growth. There is no need to double-count positive liberties, in fact doing so would be a mistake.” For Cowen, growth tells you pretty much all you need to know. He does believe there should be some restrictions on whether you can violate basic human rights, so that the relentless pursuit of growth doesn’t turn you into Stalin (who, after all, achieved phenomenal economic growth). But he says that “the only non-growth-related values that will bind practical decisions are the absolute side constraints” like not murdering people, and “most rules are not as important as the growth maximization rule.” “The Principle of Growth… will be limited only by absolute or near-absolute human rights.” Growth will take care of everything: “The overwhelming benefits of economic growth help us resolve clashing preferences” and “more important plural values will come along for the ride.”

This is a marvelously helpful philosophy, because it means we no longer have to wrestle with difficult questions about how social resources should be allocated. There is but one imperative: Feed the growth machine. No matter what happens to people, no matter how much exploitation or despair arises in the process, on balance it will all work out in the end. It’s remarkable, actually, the degree to which this resembles both Stalinism and religious faith. It’s the type of reasoning that says “the lives sacrificed for the workers’ paradise will all be worth it once the paradise gets here.” In fact, Cowen explicitly praises religious faith, saying that even if we don’t have any evidence about the benefits of growth that will accrue in the far-distant future, we have to have faith that our actions today will pay off. Even if the world around us looks terrible, if we are producing endless needless commodities for the sake of it, tearing communities apart, making people stressed and selfish and suicidal, we must have an unshakeable, unquestioning faith that the Growth Principle will see us through. The present may not look good, but just wait until you see the future.

Except that there isn’t going to be a future, if this kind of thinking is followed. We will destroy the earth long before we reach Cowen’s promised land.

Economists like Cowen look at the following chart and see something wonderful and miraculous:

Just look at the bounties that our economic system has brought us! It’s easy to see why Cowen concludes that since economic growth compounds over time, its value trumps other concerns which are simply swamped by the huge future value of exponentially increasing wealth production.

But all of this production occurs on Earth, a planet that has to be kept alive in order to sustain its inhabitants. And infinite compounding production growth can have calamitous consequences in a delicately-balanced ecosystem. Cowen seems to understand this—sort of. He throws in that growth should be “sustainable,” and proposes that our full priority should be “Wealth Plus,” i.e. GDP plus “environmental amenities.” But he never actually examines the implications of what sustainability would mean for economic growth, how taking seriously the need to be sustainable would utterly wreck the “let’s keep ramping up production toward infinity with only the barest regard for any other value” approach Cowen favors.

It’s not that difficult to understand—the American and global scientific community have been issuing increasingly dire warnings and increasingly horrifying papers. Take “Looming Global-Scale Failures and Missing Institutions,” which ran in the most prominent American research journal, Science. It observes:

Energy, food, and water crises; climate disruption; declining fisheries; increasing ocean acidification; emerging diseases; and increasing antibiotic resistance are examples of serious , intertwined global-scale challenges spawned by the accelerating scale of human activity. They are outpacing the development of institutions to deal with them and their many interactive effects.

For dispassionate scientists, these are fighting words.

And sustainability, despite becoming a vague lip-service catchword used by corporations to paper over their crimes against ecology, is in fact an area of active science research. Marine biologists recently reported “Current ocean trends, coupled with terrestrial defaunation lessons, suggest that marine defaunation rates will rapidly intensify as human use of the oceans industrializes.” Indeed, scientists globally are discussing whether human activity has finally reached a level to constitute a “mass extinction,” events which destroy many millions of species around the world as in the end-Cretaceous meteor impact that destroyed the dinosaurs. Journalist Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction describes scientists’ struggles with this issue, with many lamenting that the beautiful organisms and their complex ecological relationships won’t be around for their kids to view. But there will be Crusonia plants, so that’s consoling!

The ecology-economy cautionary tale classic Limits to Growth makes the definitive point here. Subject to endless ridicule when first published in the 1970s and then much less ridicule when updates in 2004, the authors observe the exponential growth of capitalism and ask

Can this physical growth realistically continue forever? Our answer is no! Growth in population and capital increases the ecological footprint of humanity, the burden humanity places on the world ecosystem, unless there is a successful effort to avoid such an increase… Once the footprint has grown beyond the sustainable level, as it already has, it must eventually come down—either through a managed process (for example, through rapid increases in eco-efficiency) or through the work of nature (say, through declining use of wood as forests disappear). There is no question about whether growth in the ecological footprint will stop; the only questions are when and by what means.

“Hooray for higher exponential growth” is the slogan of bacteria growing in a petri dish. However long it takes, the limits will be reached, and then deaths will grow exponentially as the agar is exhausted. All this means Cowen’s thesis is particularly disgraceful, since future generations are actually in giant danger to ecological collapse and climate change caused by constant growth in GDP, as argued in very well-reviewed recent socialist books.

This blind spot, created by economists’ monumentally casual approach to ecology, leads to some truly humiliating remarks. For example, Cowen has a very brief discussion of climate change, being a Harvard-educated liberal-ish libertarian. But his gigantic lack of familiarity with the scientific literature is immediately betrayed by his comment “many scientists believe that global warming will increase the number of virulent and persistent storms on our planet.” In fact, a strong scientific consensus supports these results of climate change. Cowen displays only the most casual regard for climate science, probably because taking it seriously would make his entire program look like an insanely wrongheaded set of priorities.

Cowen even comments that while economic growth gives us a stream of steady and growing benefits, some feared environmental “investments” are less important since they’re “one-time adjustments.” His example? “Relocating coastal settlements,” which although “large,” would be earned back over time through compounding economic growth. This is arguably the most pitifully, gigantically ignorant comment an “economist” can possibly make. The costs assessed to date of moving even small towns in low-lying areas of Louisiana and Alaska are in the neighborhood of $100 million each. The cost of moving a real major city, a Tampa or Barcelona or Osaka, will be in the many billions. The prospect of “relocating” modern megacities, like London or Shanghai or New York or Hong Kong or Rio de Janeiro, will be in the tens of trillions and involve immeasurable trauma and certain permanent losses of priceless historical places. Likely these enormous urban agglomerations would have to be protected by expensive walls, dykes, and storm gates, costing billions and making every recreational beach and seaside resort into a venue for looking at a wall.

How could anyone conceivably argue for accepting such apocalyptic costs in order to avoid rich people having to pay AOC’s high marginal tax rates? And yet they do. FOX News’ John Stossel, who simply says we can “move back from the coasts,” and the present author are named by experts surveyed by the Economist as among the most influential figures in the field. These people are going to be burned in effigy by future generations, and for good reason.

The picture of these thinkers that emerges is one of professionals with no good-faith understanding of what’s commonly discussed in scientific literature—it’s not clear what kinds of economic growth are compatible with sustainability. So taking 40 years to add the word “sustainability” to “growth” suggests a field with a Stubborn Detachment from the sciences.

Cowen’s feigned regard for the future, leading him to more of the growth-obsessed neoliberal status quo, is reminiscent of Paul Collier, the Oxford economist and author. Whereas Cowen claims more exponential growth will benefit future generations, Collier makes the more common argument that it will help the current global poor, especially the Bottom Billion, his most prominent book.

Collier’s work correctly sees the condition of the world’s poorest people as an emergency, but like Cowen refuses to consider any option for development other than more capitalist economic growth. The possibility of a large-scale program of capital grants to the developing world from the rich, former imperialist powers as a reparations campaign in recognition of its blood-soaked, resource-stripping past, is specifically condemned as a “guilt-ridden colonialist hangover” and mere “victimhood.” Only countries exploited by non-Western powers, like Korea’s suffering under the Japanese empire, are entitled to a victim status, not India or Brazil or the Congo.

But like Cowen, Collier has an utterly instrumental view of nature that is completely detached from modern scientific understanding. He says “natural substances only acquire value as a result of technological discoveries” and “Biodiversity is a good thing, but within the context of our survival, not as an end in itself. We are not here to serve nature; nature is here to serve us.” Of course, biologists have spent years describing “ecosystem services,” basic natural processes that benefit our civilization through their own logic, like pest control from amphibians and crop pollination from bees.

But Collier is far too sophisticated to go anywhere near this literature. Collier’s view is that we are custodians of nature, but only “ethically obliged to pass on to future generations the equivalent value of the natural assets that we were bequeathed by the past.” So we may blow through habitat and species in our exponential growth, but as long as that money is invested (much as with Cowen’s Crusonia plants), rather than wasted on consumption (whether through corruption of fuel and food subsidies for the poor), we’re doing the right thing.

Of course, a basic part of being a scientist is responding responsibly and respectfully to your critics, but in the social sciences we’re above that. Collier hurls any disparaging stereotype he can think of at those opposing limitless growth in consumption, calling them “an alliance of the anti-industrial values of the aristocracy, exemplified by Prince Charles, and the anti-capitalist values of Marxists.” Obviously this is just name-calling and complete willful ignorance of the actual arguments of the other side. But rather than being  laughed out of the academy, Collier has been knighted and had his garbage dump book celebrated by the New York Times, Financial Times and the Economist.

These are very respected, not hyper-partisan economists, yet their complete failure to engage with the scientific consensus makes their work an utter fraud and a pitiful waste. Their success shows economics’ stubborn detachment from the real-world context around us. Here on planet Earth, both future generations and the current desperate global poor are better served by environmental policy that creates jobs cleaning up our mess, along with a desperate crash course to restore the declining ecosystems all around us.

Recent weeks have seen the reaction of conservative political figures to the headline-grabbing Green New Deal promoted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other left national politicians. House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously mocked it as “the green dream or whatever they call it,” while President Trump said it would “permanently eliminate all Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military.” Meanwhile actual scientists have continued their grim, thankless march toward greater understanding of climate change, recently releasing a helpful app that allows you to see what location your own hometown will feel like in 2080—on average, one 500 miles south.

These hideously glib dismissals of one of the existential issues of our times didn’t come from nowhere. Besides the massive corporate funding that made the subject a partisan political issue, and the reliable anti-scientific posturing barfed out by conservative editorials, economists themselves have formed the core vanguard normalizing brisk dismissal of climate and sustainability in general.

When people say, “The free market has lead to the greatest increase in standards of living in human history,” the hidden pile of bullshit is that we’re boiling the future alive to make more Donald Trump Juniors. Supporting the surprising socialist moment and the Green New Deal, for all its flaws, should be the path for anyone interested in having a future.

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