Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Trillions and Trillions: The Selective Blindness on Endless Economic Growth

Despite conservative rhetoric, we actually can afford nice things that benefit the public.

The proud defenders of the free market economy are eager to tell you about how much wealth it creates. Conservative (and prominent racist scumbag) Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that:

“Capitalism is the best thing that has ever happened to the material condition of the human race. From the dawn of history until the 18th century, every society in the world was impoverished, with only the thinnest film of wealth on top. Then came capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. Everywhere that capitalism subsequently took hold, national wealth began to increase and poverty began to fall. Everywhere that capitalism didn’t take hold, people remained impoverished.”

Of course, as this magazine has reviewed, there are enormous holes in this hoary dogma—the growth in wealth is typically highly lopsided, leading to a hyper-rich ruling class with absurdly privileged lives, tremendous economic power, and by now their own space programs. The giant majority of families own little to no property and therefore must work for a living, and without unions or highly stringent tax systems, there are limits on how rich they can get. Most capitalist societies have major racial cleavages in wealth, and the toil of reproducing the species is not generally recognized as productive work—meaning the traditional “women’s work” of maintaining a house and raising kids is uncompensated, conspicuous outrage against women.

But one thing that really scrapes my grapes is how conservatives abruptly run away from this central part of their holy catechism the moment that it becomes inconvenient. The forms of this I always notice involve social spending and the environment.

Cooking the Books

Conservatives gloating about capitalism’s economic growth will condescend to critics in the blink of an eye, saying they don’t understand the power of free enterprise and the mathematics of exponential growth. But of course, the traditional socialist idea is that capitalism builds up the powers of economic production to relieve the scarcity of traditional society, enabling the material abundance needed for organized workers to take charge of its tremendous power. Marx believed capitalism developed our productive capacities so that we could then enjoy socialist abundance. This argument—even though it is hundreds of years old—will still typically stun a reactionary. Conservatives who brag at breakfast about the market showering us with wealth will decline at dinner to admit that means there is in fact money for universal health care, a crash decarbonization plan, and free higher education.

Many people have noticed how these budget options are covered by the commercial media, which after all are private property owned by giant corporations owned by rich stockholders. Programs of social uplift, like Medicare for All, Build Back Better or the Green New Deal, very consistently have their projected costs reported over decade-long intervals, which brings the totals into the trillions of dollars—$2 trillion for BBB, $10 trillion for M4A. A trillion, being a thousand billion, is a number that spooks people, and may make them give up their support for policies that actually have incredible popular support despite the near-zero favorable coverage of such policies in the media.

But notably, the main Pentagon budget bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, gets reported upon using its nice annual number, an already-insane $741 billion in the current bill, rather than some ten-year number that would reach into the many trillions.

It really is a kind of incredible transition. You’re a conservative, writing starry-eyed market worship. Free enterprise lets you do anything you want, makes your dreams come true, creates “stupendous growth” in the standard of living. You’re just consumed with telling the world about the giant bounty held up by the Atlas of the market. Then the moment some bastard socialist brings up universal health care or student loan forgiveness, you transform into the most miserly penny-pinching austeritymonger.

So the claims of the Right are: 

  1. Capitalism makes us rich with piles of money, and
  2. You can’t have social democracy, that takes piles of money.

Burning Nature at Both Ends

Through all the gloating about perpetually rising standards of living, and the patronizing of critics as not understanding exponential mathematics, the market apologists themselves are the ones who miss one of the most existential realities. While human economic production can grow exponentially, it is doing so on a planet with finite resources, with no ability to grow itself to accommodate our endlessly spiraling industry.

The very strong tendency is to laugh it off. Economists write about economic side effects, using the language of market “externalities,” which range from secondhand smoke to climate change. As the economy grows at an ever-faster pace, so do its externalities—oceans become more acidic, forests are destroyed in fires, and hurricanes bring floods. But for public audiences, conservatives prefer cute terms like “spillovers” or “neighborhood effects.” Milton and Rose Friedman, for example, in their libertarian classic Free to Choose wrote that “Almost everything we do has some third-party effects, however small and however remote.” As small as a melting planetary ice cap!

Writing in the 1980s, one had a lot more plausible deniability as far as climate goes. More recently, the realities of climate change have become progressively harder to ignore. The libertarian economist Tyler Cowen wrote a typical conservative book about how GDP growth should supersede every other social value. But even he wimpily suggested that “Wealth Plus” should now be the goal, representing more economic production of goods but also with unspecified “environmental amenities.” The lack of seriousness here is pretty stunning—I’d like production of goods just without damaging the environment, and to keep nice ecological services and settings without cutting back on the goods we make from ever-bigger mining, logging, and habitat destruction. Just the vaguest, most fatuous hand-waving.

Like bacteria in a Petri dish, you can grow faster and faster until you run out of agar—then it’s a fast die-off process. It’s funny, we economists are very focused on the idea of scarcity, the limited nature of economic resources relative to all the things we’d like to do with them. Markets are supposed to help us use scarce resources in the most efficient possible way—they don’t, of course, as readers of this magazine are aware. But some economists don’t recognize that the ultimate scarcity is our confinement on a planet. We have no marginal utility of more Earths, and any large-scale economic colonization off the Earth is a very distant prospect, despite Elon Musk’s coke-fueled Twitter claims.

This all may seem an incredibly simple point—conservatives celebrate the endless, accelerating growth of the market but ignore its parallel environmental downsides and don’t want to recognize that the growth of economic production enables social democratic policies that rank among the most popular in the U.S. But you at home can have fun with this—let your right-wing acquaintance, family member, or coworker be drawn in by recognition of capitalism’s stupendous growth. Then as they move into gloating phase, you can blindside them with the plain implications of this reality for social uplift and planetary survival.

Confronting reactionaries who have doomed the world might be a small comfort. But putting cracks in those paper-thin right-wing suits of armor might be just what lets in the light of a realistic picture of capitalism and the resurrection of American labor.

Trillions are too important to be left to the billionaires.

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