By Brian Czech
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that the Great God of GDP is a false god after all, impotent as Baal. The mighty American economy, with unprecedented GDP, has been knocked to its knees by one of the lowest conceivable life forms, a mere virus possessing not a single strand of DNA. Politicians who thought their legacies would be associated with “the greatest economy ever” now look like ridiculous priests of a sham religion.
GDP exceeding $21 trillion in 2019 ($87 trillion globally) has been powerless to cure the sickness, financial trauma, and fear experienced by millions of Americans and billions of souls worldwide. Adapting to the new reality of a COVID-infected world and the uncertain hope for a vaccine is depressing in the best of scenarios and devastating in the worst. Yet adapt we must, and that includes public policy as much as individual behavior.
The CDC, NIH, and WHO have provided recommendations for lowering the spread of the virus and helping infected patients survive. Politicians are attempting to balance such recommendations with the concern for a healthy economy. The problem is that virtually every major politician in the USA, as well as a majority of politicians in the world, think of economic health in terms of GDP growth. For that matter, so do the economists advising these politicians and appearing on mainstream media. Their “adaptation” to the COVID-caused recession is nothing more than a hapless attempt to get back to business as usual; that is, growing the GDP through fiscal and monetary “stimulus.” In other words, it’s no adaptation at all!
Common sense and a pair of eyes is enough to recognize that the need for social distancing—effective adaptation to COVID-19 at the individual level—translates into lower levels of economic activity and a lower velocity of money. Unfortunately, politicians are now handling public health as they handled environmental protection for decades, acting as if we can have our cake and eat it too. They seem to think that, with enough Plexiglas panels on factory floors and retail counters, we can stimulate the economy back into $21-trillion territory without suffering a pandemic death toll. We can expect claims of “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting public health,” echoing the decades-old mantra that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”
Will we be fooled again by the win-win rhetoric? I don’t think so—at least not nearly so many of us—because this time the threat of the growth obsession is a direct, imminent matter of life or death. As employees are prematurely pressured to return to work “for the economy,” knowing fully well that doing so increases their odds of contracting the deadly virus, surely they will rethink what “the economy” is really for and who is behind the push to “stimulate” it.
There will be a significant percentage of individuals who decide more or less happily never to return to the jobs that dominated their life pre-COVID. Many will wrestle with trade-offs, such as extra gardening and more childcare, and certainly less luxury goods and entertainment. Some will have saved enough—and were cautious enough to avoid debt traps—such that they may find the new lifestyle to be empowering and even more joyful than the old 9-to-5 grind. They won’t be contributing much to GDP, but they’ll be healthier and happier, and will hardly be a burden on the nation’s infrastructure and budget.
Unfortunately, many others will be desperate to return to work or find a new job. They may have little means of subsistence—no lawn for a victory garden—and some will be threatened with homelessness when they can’t pay the rent. Even they, however, will see through the lie that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the public from COVID-19.” They are victims of an unfair capitalist system who must go to work “for the economy” and risk their health in the process.
The experience of individuals far and wide, then, will be conducive to a sea-change in attitudes toward the economy, GDP growth, and the government’s role in defending its own taxpaying citizens.
A New Economic Policy for 21st Century America
A new policy vision for the post-COVID economy entails replacing the current policy. So, what exactly is the current policy? What is it that steers us constantly, relentlessly back onto the GDP growth path? Let’s take a short trip down institutional memory lane…
As a response to the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave Americans the New Deal. Most of the work programs were cultural successes and employed significant numbers of young men. Yet the Depression wasn’t “solved” until World War II, with the mobilization of the civilian labor force and technological progress spinning out of war-time laboratories. Most Americans know this basic story of the Great Depression, New Deal, and World War II, but few seem aware of the Employment Act of 1946. We must be fully aware of it to move toward a new economic policy for the 21st century.
The Employment Act was a Keynesian adaptation to the experience of the Great Depression; that is, it was largely a result of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Prior to Keynes, economists clung stubbornly to their ideal of laissez faire (let do; non-interference) as the proper governmental approach to economic affairs. General Theory was the paradigm-shifting book that persuaded Western governments to take active fiscal and monetary measures for ensuring adequate demand for goods and full employment of the labor force.
In crafting the Employment Act, the 78th Congress was especially concerned about the social and cultural ravages of unemployment. It was less concerned with any explicit notion of economic growth. For one thing, national income accounting was in its infancy. Also, Congress was still reluctant to get the federal government very involved in economic affairs, especially with heightened concerns over the sway of communist ideology. That said, the Employment Act did establish the Council of Economic Advisors, which turned out to be a highly influential pro-growth institution for decades to come.
The American economy ran fairly smoothly and grew very rapidly for the next couple of decades, but by the 1970s, American political leadership was beside itself with the problem of stagflation, that is, recession (“stagnation”) concurrent with inflation. Economists thought you could have only one or the other for any significant period of time and that they were, in fact, countervailing forces. Unlike World War II, though, the Vietnam War wasn’t sufficient to kick the real economy into high gear. Efforts to stimulate investment and consumer spending by loosening the money supply only led to inflation. Thus, stagflation.
The bedeviling bouts of stagflation finally led Richard M. Nixon to announce, “We are all Keynesians now,” recognizing that conservative diehards were some of the last to accept any government involvement in macroeconomic policy. Nixon had established the Bureau of Economic Analysis in 1972 for state-of-the-art accounting and GDP calculation. The 95th Congress, led by Hubert Humphrey and Augustus Hawkins, worked to update the Employment Act, which was finally amended as the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act (FEBGA) and signed by President Carter in 1978. As of then, the US government was fully and formally committed to GDP growth as central economic policy.
It was easy for supporters of FEBGA to argue mathematically that, all else equal, more jobs could be had with greater GDP. It was also easy for Big Money to hide behind pro-growth policy for purposes of accumulating more capital and increasing CEO salaries, without any concern for creating more jobs. Not surprisingly, FEBGA ended up a thick mix of fiscal and monetary policy that serves the capitalist as well as the labor force.
FEBGA is often referred to with the shorthand “Employment Act,” saving a number of syllables and reminding us of its original (1946) focus. I favor the full 1978 title, even if only via acronym, as a reminder that GDP growth is not just some wistful political notion or rhetorical tool but rather a formal, central policy of the USA pursued with fiscal, monetary, and deregulatory means, as well as diplomacy and terms of trade in international affairs.
Now, more than a half century later and in the midst of an economy-crushing pandemic, it’s time to rewrite FEBGA. We need a Full and Sustainable Employment Act, with the very name change communicating that growth is no longer sustainable. The Full and Sustainable Employment Act will mark the transition from economic growth to a steady state economy, politically and every bit as formally as FEGBA called for growth.
Pro-growth politicians (or perhaps Big Money) came up with the brilliant metaphor, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” While at least one source attributes the phrase to President John F. Kennedy, it seems like the stuff of Madison Avenue. And, when limits to growth aren’t acknowledged, the logic illustrated by the metaphor is unassailable. All else equal (“ceteris paribus” in econ-speak), a growing GDP means more jobs. Of course the devil is in the phrase “all else equal,” because little is equal on the tilted chess board of a capitalist economy. Instead of more jobs, a growing GDP too often means more expensive technology and billionaire CEOs, who are just as effective at blasting ships out of the water as making way for more boats.
Either way, the metaphor of the rising tide sinks like a presidential approval rating when limits to growth are recognized, as they increasingly are and should especially be in the context of COVID-19. There is only so much water; the tide can’t rise forever. There is a limit to the number of boats at sea, too, and even a limit to boat-building material on shore. It’s high time for the “rising tide” metaphor to ebb all the way back into the rustic recesses of faded political minds.
It so happens that the acronym of Full and Sustainable Employment Act—FSEA—is useful for nailing the coffin shut on the “rising tide” metaphor. Combining “F” (for Full) and “SEA” invokes the image of a full sea. Why not take advantage of such a linguistic coincidence and make the message a little clearer yet? It is not unprecedented for Congress to wax metaphorical with the short title of a paradigm-shifting statute; they might as well call this one the “Full Seas Act.”
What might the Full Seas Act actually look like? How will it conduce a steady state economy? What happens to the pro-growth arrangements established by FEBGA? The best way to envision these developments is to consider a proposed Section 2.
Full Seas Act—Findings and Declaration
In a typical act of Congress, Section 1 provides a short title (“Full Seas Act” in this case). Section 2 is in many ways the most important section of a path-breaking statute because it establishes the key findings and declarations of Congress. It comprises a sort of preamble and emanates the spirit of the law. It justifies the details laid out in subsequent sections, and future policy development at the agency level will be informed by its content as well.
On the other hand, readers should keep in mind that Section 2 is never designed to address all the details of the challenge at hand, much less all the problems of the world. The crux of the Full Seas Act is a formal transition from economic growth to the steady state economy (most likely via degrowth). Therefore, Section 2 will not include references to specific policy tools such as minimum wages, energy caps, banking reforms, etc. Sections 3 and beyond just as surely will, however.
Without further ado, then, the initial public offering of the Full Seas Act, Section 2, more or less consistent with the canons of statutory construction:
(a) FINDINGS. The Congress finds that—
(1) Economic growth, as measured with gross domestic product (GDP), requires a growing human population, increasing per capita consumption, or both.
(2) Consistent with the natural sciences, including basic principles of physics and biology, there are limits to economic growth within and among nations.
(3) There is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, including the maintenance of: clean air and water; productive soils; biological diversity; stocks of natural resources including water, timber, fisheries, minerals, and fossil fuels, and; funds of ecosystem services including nutrient cycling, pollination, waste absorption, and carbon sequestration.
(4) A well-maintained, non-degraded environment is the foundation of a productive economy. Therefore, and because of the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, there is also a fundamental conflict between economic growth and the long-term maintenance of the economy including jobs, income, and wellbeing.
(5) A well-maintained economy is vital to national defense. Therefore, and because of the fundamental conflict between economic growth and the long-term maintenance of the economy, there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and national security.
(6) There is abundant environmental and economic evidence that long-term limits to growth have been and are being reached and exceeded in the Nation, other nations, and globally.
(7) There is abundant evidence that perennial fiscal and monetary efforts to stimulate GDP growth are increasingly causing environmental, economic, and social harm while resulting in fewer benefits, with the harm gradually exceeding the benefits.
(b) DECLARATION. The Congress declares that—
(1) It is heretofore the policy of the Nation to undertake a gradual but certain transition from the goal and pursuit of economic growth to the goal and pursuit of a sustainable steady state economy, with stabilized or mildly fluctuating population and per capita consumption as generally indicated, all else being equal, by a mildly fluctuating GDP.
(2) The transition to a steady state economy must be undertaken with every intent and effort to achieve and maintain the full employment of the labor force consistent with environmental protection and other aspects of economic sustainability including a balanced federal budget and the effective control of inflation.
(3) The President, President’s Cabinet, Council of Economic Advisors, Federal Reserve, and federal agency directors will immediately cease and desist from developing strategies and initiatives to grow or stimulate the economy. Existing policies, programs, and projects designed explicitly to grow or stimulate the economy shall not be extended beyond fiscal year 2021 or beyond the designated sunset date, whichever comes later.
(4) The Congressional Research Service, collaborating with the Office of Management and Budget and Council of Economic Advisers, will review and summarize the federal agency mission statements, goals, objectives, policies, programs, and practices designed for GDP growth, producing a Report on Federal Growth Incentives no later than 30 April 2022.
(5) A Commission on Economic Sustainability (“the Commission”) is hereby established to include the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce, chaired by the Secretary of the Interior, to estimate and monitor environmentally sustainable levels of population and socially optimal levels of GDP. The Commission will produce a Report on Sustainable Population and Optimal GDP no later than 31 August 2022.
(6) The Commission Chair, with counsel of the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, Secretary of Commerce, Federal Reserve Chair, and Secretary of the Treasury, drawing on the Report on Federal Growth Incentives and the Report on Sustainable Population and Optimal GDP, and pursuant to the framework provided in subsequent sections herein, will develop and deliver to the President, no later than 31 August 2023, a 25-year Steady-State Transition Plan detailing and scheduling the adjustments, modifications, additions, and deletions necessary to establish a system of government operations most conducive to a steady state economy at an estimated optimal level of GDP.
(7) The President, Cabinet secretaries, and federal agency directors shall not overlook the existence, neglect the enforcement, or underfund the performance of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, or any other of the Nation’s environmental laws or regulations on grounds that said laws or regulations may interfere with the workings of the economy or slow the rate of GDP growth.
Stay Tuned for the Rest of the Full Seas Act
For policy wonks and steady-state advocates, exciting times lie ahead as Sections 3 and beyond of the Full Seas Act will feature long-awaited steady-state policy instruments. The starting point should be the top ten policies favored by Herman Daly. Chapter 11 of Supply Shock is largely for purposes of informing the Full Seas Act. And, at the risk of unintentionally omitting dozens of helpful individuals, now is the time to revisit specific proposals of scholars such as Peter Victor, Tim Jackson, Dan O’Neill, and Phil Lawn as well as the rich mix of overlapping ideas emanating from the European degrowth movement.
Speaking of the latter, the Full Seas Act could hardly be effective in a world pursuing GDP growth with only rare exceptions such as Bhutan and New Zealand. Ramped up levels of international trade will be difficult to reconcile with the steady state economy of a huge nation-state. Therefore, the Full Seas Act must address the need for steady statesmanship in international diplomacy.
We should take a page from the playbook of the 93rd Congress, which passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Congress used Section 8 largely to implement American obligations pursuant to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or “CITES,” one of the most sweeping international conservation agreements to date.
Our approach in the Full Seas Act needs to be more proactive, because in this case there is no convention ready and waiting to be implemented. We should devote one section, then, to fleshing out and pursuing the development of a Convention on Economic Sustainability, most likely with a United Nations secretariat. This convention will be assembled for purposes of addressing global limits to growth and the need for “contraction and convergence,” or the acceptance of degrowth in wealthy countries while nations with ubiquitous poverty are assisted to the extent that they have diplomatically established their own sustainable steady-state goals.
Steady statesmanship may be even more difficult than the domestic policy reforms required for an American steady state economy. Yet the harsh realities of COVID make such statesmanship feasible as well. In any event, does it matter how difficult it is, in deciding whether to pursue it? After all, what is the alternative? As we like to say at CASSE, peace is a steady state economy.
And so is health.
 See Chapter 11, “A Call for Steady Statesmen,” in Czech, B., Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution (2013, New Society Publishers) for the initial proposal of the Full and Sustainable Employment Act along with numerous policy tools and institutions to be considered in drafting the legislation.
The Section 2 proposed herein does not include amending specifications. The bill presented to Congress will specify which clauses of FEBGA are to be amended, and how. Basically, however, the intent is to replace Section 2 of FEBGA with the proposed Section 2 herein.
Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.