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The Guardian and Monbiot versus Forbes and Worstall

Dalyby Herman Daly

In his Guardian column, criticizing growth as “The Insatiable God,” George Monbiot writes:

Is it not also time for a government commission on post-growth economics? Drawing on the work of thinkers like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Kate Raworth, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, it would investigate the possibility of moving towards a steady state economy: one that seeks distribution rather than blind expansion; that does not demand infinite growth on a finite planet…

It is no surprise that we at CASSE strongly agree with Monbiot. Nor does it come as a surprise that a columnist for Forbes, Tim Worstall, would disagree. What is surprising is that Worstall uses me in support of his position (with which I disagree) and against Monbiot (with whom I agree). How does he manage such a reversal? By conflating growth (quantitative physical increase) with development (qualitative improvement), and claiming that 80% of GDP increase is due to qualitative “growth” (total factor productivity), and is therefore independent of increase in physical resource use–when in reality the “total” factor productivity increase in question is mainly caused by an increase in physical resource throughput. This requires further explanation.

In a previous article, also criticizing Monbiot, Worstall states his position more completely, as quoted below, [my brackets inserted].

Value add [added] is economic growth, not more stuff. And we can take this insight to an extreme as well, that extreme being the steady state economy proposed by Herman Daly. In this world resources are only abstracted from the environment if this can be done sustainably. And we recycle everything of course [not energy or highly dispersed materials]. So, in such a world can we still have economic growth? We have no more access to more stuff to make stuff out of: so is growth still possible? Yes, of course it is. For we can still discover new methods of adding value to those resources that we do have available to us through our recycling. Daly calls this qualitative growth rather than the quantitative growth that we cannot have. [Actually I speak of “qualitative improvement” to emphasize that technology is not a cardinally measurable quantity that can properly be said to grow]. But there’s absolutely no difference at all between this and the more conventional economic descriptions of growth. Qualitative growth is akin to growth through an increase in total factor productivity as opposed to growth via the use of more inputs [only remember that “more inputs” should include natural resources, but does not]. And Bob Solow once pointed out that 80% of the growth in the market economies in the 20th century came from tfp (total factor productivity) growth, not the consumption of more resources. We’re just using different words to describe exactly the same thing here [not really].

Now if this were true we could keep resource throughput constant, avoiding most of the increasing environmental costs of growth, and still have 80% of historical GDP growth. Once matter-energy throughput is stabilized at an ecologically sustainable level we could presumably have significant GDP growth forever with minimal environmental costs, thanks to increasing total factor productivity. I would be happy if that were true, but I am pretty sure that it is not. Nevertheless, if Forbes believes it, maybe they would then endorse a policy of limiting resource throughput (cap-auction-trade or carbon tax), and be content with still significant GDP growth based only on total factor productivity increase? Don’t hold your breath. Worstall explicitly discounts any notion of resource scarcity, so why limit throughput? But, just for good measure, he argues here that even with resource scarcity, technology can, by itself, provide most of our accustomed growth, as it supposedly has in the past.

Worstall’s source for the 80% figure is the “Solow Residual,” which is commonly misinterpreted as a measure of total factor productivity. As calculated, it is a measure of “two-factor” productivity, the two factors being labor and capital. The Cobb-Douglas production function that underlies this calculation omits natural resources, the classical third factor. This means that it cannot possibly be an accurate analytical representation of production. It is like a recipe that includes the cook and the oven, but omits the list of ingredients.

Photo Credit: Claire.Ly

As natural resources becomes increasingly scarce, can we afford to ignore their contributions to increases in production? Photo Credit: Claire.Ly

Value added has to be added to something, namely natural resources, by something, namely labor and capital. The cook and the oven add value to the ingredients, but nothing happens without the ingredients. Our empty-world economic accounting attributes all value to labor and capital, and treats natural resources in situ as superabundant free gifts of nature. But in today’s full world, resources are not only scarce but have become the limiting factor. Leaving the limiting factor out of the analysis makes the Cobb-Douglas production function not only incomplete, but also actively misleading.

Nevertheless, Worstall’s 80% figure comes from respected economists who have used the Cobb-Douglas production function in a statistical correlation–an exercise to see how much of increased production can be statistically explained by increases in labor and capital. The residual, what is not explained by labor and capital increase, is attributable to all causes other than labor and capital, including, for example, technology improvement and increased material and energy throughput (natural resource use).

A large residual indicates weak explanatory power of the theory being tested–in this case the Cobb-Douglas theory that production increase is due only to capital and labor increase. But instead of being embarrassed by a large unexplained residual, some economists were eager to “explain” it as an indirect measure of technological progress, as a measure of improvement in total factor productivity. But is technology the only causative factor reflected in the residual? No, there are surely others, most especially the omitted yet rapidly increasing flow of natural resources, of energy and concentrated minerals. The contribution of energy and materials from nature to production is also part of the residual, likely dwarfing technological improvement. Yet the entire residual is attributed to technology, to total factor productivity, or more accurately “two-factor” productivity, in the absence of natural resources, the classical third factor.

As the natural resource flow greatly increases, and capital and labor transform that growing resource flow into more products, then of course the measured productivity of capital and labor increases. This increased “total” factor productivity, due mostly to increase in the ignored factor of natural resources, is then appealed to as evidence of the unimportance of natural resources, given the “empirical finding” that total factor productivity improvement (technology) “explains” so much of the observed increase in production. This reasoning is clearly specious. It is the increased resource use that explains the increase in total factor productivity (i.e. two-factor productivity), which cannot then be used as a reason to discount the importance of its own cause, namely an increased flow of natural resources. Indeed, the unimportance of natural resources could not possibly be an empirical finding of any statistical analysis based on the Cobb-Douglas production function, because that function assumes the unimportance of natural resources from the beginning by omitting them as a factor of production. This is a big confusion and Worstall is not the only one misled by it.

In conclusion, I think the Guardian and Monbiot’s position is not in the least weakened by the criticism from Forbes and Worstall, but that reliance on the Cobb-Douglas production function should certainly be weakened.

Not Production, Not Consumption, but Transformation

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWell-established words can be misleading. In economics “production and consumption” are such common terms that it is easy to forget that they do not really mean what they literally say. Physically we do not produce anything; we just use energy to rearrange matter into a more useful form. Production really means transformation of what is already here. Likewise, consumption merely reflects the disarrangement of carefully structured materials by the wear and tear of use into a less useful form — another transformation, this time from useful product into worn out product and waste. Of course one might say that we are producing and consuming “value” or “utility”, not really physical things. However, value is always added to something physical, namely resources, by labor and capital, which are also physical things ultimately made from the same low-entropy energy and materials that go into products. Nor does the service sector escape physical dimensions — services are always rendered by something or somebody. To abstract from physical dimensions and focus only on utility is to throw out the baby and pour bathwater on the diaper.

If we were to speak of a “transformation function” rather than a production function then we would naturally have to specify what is being transformed, into what, by the agency of what? Natural resource flows are transformed into flows of goods (and wastes), by the fund agents of labor and capital. A transformation function must show both the agents of transformation (funds of labor and capital that are not themselves transformed into the product but are needed to effect the transformation), and the flow of resources that are indeed physically embodied in the flow of products, or waste. This distinction between fund and flow factors immediately reveals their complementary roles as efficient cause and material cause — any substitution between them is very limited. You cannot bake the same cake with half the flour, eggs, etc. by doubling the number of cooks and the size of the oven. One natural resource can often substitute for another, and capital can often substitute for labor or vice versa, but more labor and capital can hardly substitute for a smaller resource flow, beyond the very limited extent of sweeping up and re-using process waste such as scraps, sawdust, etc. which ought to have already been accounted for in specifying a technically efficient production function. In most textbooks the production function depicts output as a function of inputs, undifferentiated as to their fund or flow nature, and all considered fundamentally substitutable.

But if the usual production function does not distinguish fund agents of transformation from the flow of natural resources being transformed, then how does it envisage the process of converting factor inputs into product outputs? Usually by multiplying them together, as in the Cobb-Douglas and other multiplicative functions. What could be more natural linguistically than multiplying “factors” to get a “product”? But this is mathematics, not economics. There is absolutely nothing analogous to multiplication going on in what we customarily call production — there is only transformation. Try to multiply the resource flow by labor or capital to get product outflow and your “production function” will have immediately run afoul of the law of conservation of mass. Perhaps to escape such incongruities most production functions contain only labor and capital, omitting resources entirely. We can now bake our cake with only the cook and her oven, no ingredients to be transformed at all! You can multiply cooks times ovens all you want and you still won’t get a meal.

How did this nonsense come into economics? I suspect it represents a confusion between the production function as a theoretical analytical description of the physical process of transformation (a recipe), and production function as a mere statistical correlation between outputs and inputs. The latter is common in macroeconomics, the former in microeconomics, although that is not a hard and fast rule because the distinction between a theoretical description and a statistical correlation is often ignored in both areas. The statistical approach usually includes only labor and capital as factor inputs, and then discovers that these two factors “explain” only 60% of the historical change in output, leaving a 40% residual to be explained by “something else”. No problem, say the growth economists, that large residual is “obviously” a measure of technological progress. However, the statistical residual is in fact a measure of everything that is not capital and labor — including specifically the quantity and quality of resources transformed. Increased resource use gets counted in the residual and attributed to technological progress. Then that same measure of technical progress is appealed to in order to demonstrate the unimportance of resources! If we thought in terms of a transformation function, rather than production ex nihilo it would be hard to make such an error.

The basic points just made were developed more rigorously forty years ago by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in his fund-flow critique of the neoclassical production function. Neoclassical growth economists have never answered his critique. Why bring it up again, and what is the relevance to steady-state economics? It is worth raising the issue again precisely because it has never been answered. What kind of a science is it that can get away with ignoring a fundamental critique for forty years? It is relevant to steady-state economics because it views production as physical transformation subject to biophysical limits and the laws of thermodynamics. Also it shows that the force of resource scarcity is in the nature of a limiting factor, and not so easy to escape by substitution of capital for resources, as often claimed by neoclassical growth economists.