Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy
Regular Contributors:  Herman Daly, Brian Czech, Brent Blackwelder, James Magnus-Johnston, and Eric Zencey. Guest authors by invitation.

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Make a Steady Statement: The Latent Power of “Steady State Economy”

“Steady state economy” – it’s got a nice ring, doesn’t it? In a world of financial meltdowns, climate change, resource wars, banker bailouts, endangered species, BP, etc., the ring gets nicer by the day, no? With unpredictability and insecurity eating away at the collective peace of mind, “steady state economy” exudes stability, security, and sustainability. It’s a phrase for which the time has come!

Yet we rarely hear the phrase in the media. Some folks have already concluded that there must be something wrong with the words. They think “steady state economy” would be in widespread use already unless there was something politically fatal about the phrase. So they shy away from it like zombies from the sunlight.

I think there’s a different reason we don’t hear the media using “steady state economy.” The media simply isn’t hearing enough about it to begin with. So the bigger question is, why isn’t the media hearing about it?

Perhaps too many people have misread George Lakoff’s 2004 bestseller, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Lakoff is a brilliant linguist (which makes for good authoring), but his book set off a wave of political correctness that wimpified the country by storm. I don’t think it was Lakoff’s intention, but it’s as if the title became Don’t Think, period. Instead, just use words that will sound good to the public (in your opinion), and everyone will be happy.

But if you want to get something done, a better rule of thumb is Don’t Overthink. For example, now and then I encounter a scholar who is familiar with the literature on steady state economics, but won’t use the phrase in his or her own work, especially not in public forums where the media might catch on. Usually the reason given is that the phrase scares people, although the scholar can’t seem to put a finger on why. There are vague notions that “state” might imply communism. Part of the acronym “SSE” gives some an uneasy feeling. It’s as if World War II and the Cold War were bound to re-open if we ventured forth with “steady state economy” on our tongues!

But of course, neither not thinking nor overthinking will get us very far. I say Do Think, and don’t shrink. A great deal of encouragement and education stems from a thoughtful but clear choice of words. Innovative phrases such as “uneconomic growth” and bumper-sticker quips like “Growing the economy is shrinking the ecosystem” are valuable point-makers.

Then when they ask, “If economic growth has become such a threat, what’s the alternative?” the answer should be quick, clear and concise: “The steady state economy.” It’s no use fluffing around with “green economy” or “new economy” or even “sustainable economy,” not if you’re serious about identifying a sustainable alternative to growth. Everyone will have their take on what a “green” economy means, what a “new” economy should be, and what is “sustainable.” Despite your best intentions, you can bet your words will be framed into “green” growth, “new” growth, or the supremely oxymoronic “sustainable growth.”

Not so with the steady state economy. There’s little mistaking the key point: a steady state in the size of the economy. No one’s going to co-opt this phrase!

But you should quickly elaborate, “Neither growth nor recession are sustainable or desirable in the long run. That means the only sustainable alternative is the steady state economy.” To be safe, and to avoid a strawman retort, you should probably add immediately, “Of course, no one thinks there should be a flat-lined, stagnant economy. The steady state economy fluctuates, preferably close to an optimum size.” Tell them, just to be safe, they can call it a “dynamic steady state economy,” or a “steady state economy in dynamic equilibrium with the economy of nature.” Most people, though, will have the common sense to realize that “steady” means mildly fluctuating as opposed to flat-lining.

Similarly, it may help to remind listeners that there is no shortage, in a steady state economy, of qualitative economic developments. Trends in consumer preference, technological replacements, increasing equity… many improvements in economic conditions are likely in a steady state economy. As Herman Daly calls it, “development without growth.”

Now it’s true that “steady state economy” will never be a rhetorical flash like “You do the math” or “Do chickens have lips?” But that’s ok. The beauty of “steady state economy” is that it’s not intended to be rhetorical at all; it’s plainspoken, tell-it-like-it-is terminology. No one will accuse the speaker of political pandering or gobbledygooking their way around a serious issue. Numerous policy implications are immediately clear; fiscal and monetary levers set for growth should be pulled back carefully toward a steady state.

I conclude with a challenge to Daly News readers: Be a Steady Statesman, or woman. Damn the rhetorical torpedoes – if there really are any – and make a steady statement!

6 Responses to “Make a Steady Statement: The Latent Power of “Steady State Economy””

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Oriel Kenny, Henk Hadders and Joshua Nelson, CASSE. CASSE said: "Steady state economy" is the foremost phrase for framing discussions about economic growth and sustainability. […]

  2. Lori says:

    Maybe you should call it a homeostatic economy, as contrasted with, say, a metastatic economy. I also think of it as an emphasis on negative feedback, but speakers of Plain English probably think of that as a less-than-favorable review at work. Even main$tream policy wonkery contains the notion of ‘countercyclical’ in its toolkit. Being the kind of people who travel in the same circles as politicians and spinmeisters, they know better than to use words like ‘negative.’ Also, even main$trem economics contains the notion of ‘equilibrium,’ and it’s pretty central to what they’re about. Perhaps when they assert that equilibrium is a strong attractor of actually-existing-markets, they’re drawing the boundaries of the ‘system’ so as to exclude certain elephants from the room.

  3. It’s time CASSE thinks about and disseminates how SSE translates to other languages. A start will be the “official” translation to the UN official working languages. It’s hard to make a steady state statement if we have no correspondent term in non-English language. As an example, it took years for Spanish speakers to come with a term for “sustainable development” and people still uses two different words to refer to it: “sustentable” and “sostenible”. The difference in terminology (and it’s implications) caused unneeded controversy and confusion in the field.
    Keep up with the good thinking!

  4. Cole says:

    I think the emphasis on continued development is key. For me personally as a “glass half full” type person I like the insight that we are not talking about the end of medical miracles, new composite materials, computing advances, and so on.

    When I’ve explained the steady state economy to co-workers, the rhetorical flash I’ve used, with some success, has been “quality not quantity.” That seems to set their thinking in the right direction, provided one follows up with explanation about development, not growth, and so on.

  5. Lori says:

    Gonzalo: I’m curious as to what are the (perceived?) differences between ‘sustentable’ and ‘sostenible.’ Is it akin to ‘environmental economics’ (which I’ve been told is spin) and ‘ecological economics’ (supposedly the real deal)?

    Cole: The small mammals are more evolutionarily sophisticated critters than the giant reptiles, and of course energy efficiency is a large part of their secret of success. Also quality over quantity. The advanced critters generally involve a big investment in a small number of offspring. Would you rather be a mayfly, which is almost totally expendable?

  6. Who cares? “Steady State Economy” has a nice ring to it, but the solution to our sustainability problem lies in each of us mastering one’s own economy. The big picture, what the nearly seven billion of us are doing to the planet can be broken down into nearly seven billion little pictures.

    Once we begin to look at our environmental sustainability problem in terms of dollars and cents, and we acknowledge money and economic growth as the driving forces behind environmental degradation due to consumption, it is only a step further to determine how much each of us may contribute to the problem without upsetting the balance of Nature, so to speak. If we take the total world income and divide that by the total world population, we get the average per capita income. We would then divide the average per capita income by the total amount of consumption going on in relation to the Earth’s carrying capacity, as follows:
    APCI (Average Per Capita Income) ÷ RCR (Relative Consumption Rate) = SMIL (Sustainable Mean Income Level)
    In other words, if the world average per capita income (APCI) is $8,529 and we are presently consuming 1.3 times the amount of resources that the Earth can regenerate in a given time frame (RCR), determining a “Sustainable Mean Income Level” (SMIL) would entail dividing the world average per capita income by 1.3.
    $8,529 ÷ 1.3 = $6,560.77 The resulting figure for this equation represents an approximation of the world average per capita income that the Earth could actually keep up with, a sustainable level of consumption, based on per capita income.
    Thus, an individual whose income is at or below $6,560.77 can be said to be living a sustainable lifestyle, while those who are living above this income level are not.