Growth and Free Trade: Brain-Dead Dogmas Still Kicking Hard

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThere are two dogmas that neoclassical economists must never publicly doubt lest they be defrocked by their professional priesthood: first, that growth in GDP is always good and is the solution to most problems; second, that free international trade is mutually beneficial thanks to the growth-promoting principle of comparative advantage. These two cracked pillars “support” nearly all the policy advice given by mainstream economists to governments.

Even such a clear thinker as Paul Krugman never allows his usually admirable New York Times column to question these most sacred of all tenets. And yet in less than 1,000 words the two dogmas can easily be shown to be wrong by just looking at observable facts and the first principles of classical economics. Pause, and calmly consider the following:

(1) Growth in all micro-economic units (firms and households) is subject to the “when to stop rule” of optimization, namely stop when rising marginal cost equals declining marginal benefit. Why does this not also apply to growth of the matter-energy throughput that sustains the macro-economy, the aggregate of all firms and households? And since real GDP is the best statistical index we have of aggregate throughput, why does it not roughly hold for growth in GDP? It must be because economists see the economy as the whole system, growing into the void — not as a subsystem of the finite and non-growing ecosphere from which the economy draws resources (depletion) and to which it returns wastes (pollution). When the economy grows in terms of throughput, or real GDP, it gets bigger relative to the ecosystem and displaces ever more vital ecosystem functions. Why do economists assume that it can never be too big, that such aggregate growth can never at the margin result in more illth than wealth? Perhaps illth is invisible because it has no market price. Yet, as a joint product of wealth, illth is everywhere: nuclear wastes, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, biodiversity loss, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells, exhausting and dangerous labor, exploding debt, etc. Economists claim that the solution to poverty is more growth — without ever asking if growth still makes us richer, as it did back when the world was empty, or if it has begun to make us poorer in a world that is now too full of us and our stuff. This is a threatening question, because if growth has become uneconomic then the solution to poverty becomes sharing now, not growth in the future. Sharing is now called “class warfare.”

(2) Countries whose growth has pushed their ecological footprint beyond their geographic boundaries into the ecosystems of other countries are urged by mainline economists to continue to do so under the flag of free trade and specialization according to comparative advantage. Let the rest of the world export resources to us, and we will pay with exports of capital, patented technology, copyrighted entertainment, and financial services. Comparative advantage guarantees that we will all be better off (and grow more) if everyone specializes in producing and exporting only what they are relatively better at, and importing everything else. The logic of comparative advantage is impeccable, given its premises. However, one of its premises is that capital, while mobile within nations, does not flow between nations. But in today’s world capital is even more mobile between countries than goods, so it is absolute, not comparative advantage that really governs specialization and trade. Absolute advantage still yields gains from specialization and trade, but they need not be mutual as under comparative advantage — i.e., one country can lose while the other gains. “Free trade” really means “deregulated international commerce” — similar to deregulated finance in justification and effect. Furthermore, specialization, if carried too far, means that trade becomes a necessity. If a country specializes in producing only a few things then it must trade for everything else. Trade is no longer voluntary. If trade is not voluntary then there is no reason to expect it to be mutually beneficial, and another premise of free trade falls. If economists want to keep the world safe for free trade and comparative advantage they must limit capital mobility internationally; if they want to keep international capital mobility they must back away from comparative advantage and free trade. Which do they do? Neither. They seem to believe that if free trade in goods is beneficial, then by extension free trade in capital (and other factors) must be even more beneficial. And if voluntary trade is mutually beneficial, then what is the harm in making it obligatory? How does one argue with people who use the conclusion of an argument to deny the argument’s premises? Their illogic is invincible!

Like people who can’t see certain colors, maybe neoclassical economists are just blind to growth-induced illth and to destruction of national community by global integration via free trade and free capital mobility. But how can an “empirical science” miss two red elephants in the same room? And how can economic theorists, who make a fetish of advanced mathematics, persist in such elementary logical errors?

If there is something wrong with these criticisms then some neoclassical colleague ought to straighten me out. Instead they lamely avoid the issue with attacks on nameless straw men who supposedly advocate poverty and isolationism. Of course rich is better than poor — the question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or have we passed the optimum scale at which it begins to make us poorer? Of course trade is better than isolation and autarky. But deregulated trade and capital mobility lead away from reasonable interdependence among many separate national economies that mutually benefit from voluntary trade, to the stifling specialization of a world economy so tightly integrated by global corporations that trade becomes, “an offer you can’t refuse.”

Will standard economists ever pull the plug on brain-dead dogmas?

Economics Unmasked

by Herman Daly

Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good by Phillip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Green Books, UK, 2011.

Manfred Max-Neef is a Chilean-German economist noted for his pioneering work in human scale development and his threshold hypothesis on the relation of welfare to GDP, as well as other contributions, for which he received the Right Livelihood Award in 1983. Phillip B. Smith (deceased, 2005) was an American–Dutch physicist with a devotion to social justice that led to an interest in economics. Smith died before this collaborative work was completed, so it fell to Max-Neef to finish it, respecting what Smith had done. Although this results in differences in style and approach between chapters, Max-Neef informs us that they both read and approved each other’s contributions, so it is a true collaboration. These differences between the physical and social scientists are complementary rather than contradictory.

As clear from the title, the book argues that modern neoclassical economics is a mask for power and greed, a construct designed to justify the status quo. Its claim to serve the common good is specious, and its claim to scientific status is fraudulent. The latter is sought mainly by excessive mathematical formalism to the neglect of concrete facts and real values. The mathematical formalism is in imitation of nineteenth century physics (economics viewed as the mechanics of utility and self-interest), but without any empirical basis remotely comparable to physics. Pareto is identified a villain here, and to a lesser extent Jevons.

The hallmark of a real science is a basic consensus about fundamentals. There is no real consensus in economics, so how can it claim to be a mature science? Easy, by forcing a false “consensus” through the simple expedient of declaring heterodox views to be “not really economics,” eliminating history of economic thought from the curriculum, instigating a pseudo-Nobel Prize in Economics, and attaining a monopoly on faculty positions in economics departments at elite universities. Such a top-down, imposed consensus is the opposite of the true bottom-up consensus that results when independent minds all bow before the power of the same truth. “Mathematics was simply built into the laws that describe the behavior of the atomic nucleus. You didn’t have to impose it on the nucleus.” (p.67). The same cannot be said of people, even atomistic homo economicus.

The authors give due attention to the history of economic thought, drawing most positively on Sismondi (for statements of value and purpose), Karl Polanyi (for his treatment of labor, nature, and money as non commodities that escape the logic of markets), and Frederick Soddy (for his thermodynamics-based analysis of money, wealth, debt, and the impossibility of continuing exponential growth of the economy). Negative references are reserved mainly for Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, with a mixed review for Amartya Sen. While I understand their antipathy to Hayek I found their case against him less than totally convincing. More convincing and fruitful is their building on the neglected work of Sismondi, Polanyi, and Soddy. That effort cries out to be continued by others.

Their criticisms of globalization, free trade, and free capital mobility are well founded. Economists must remember that the first rule of efficiency is to count all costs, not to specialize according to comparative advantage, especially if that “advantage” is based on a standards-lowering competition to externalize environmental and social costs. Indeed comparative advantage is irrelevant in a world of international capital mobility that gives priority to absolute advantage. While specialization according to absolute advantage gives gains from trade, they need not be mutually shared as in the comparative advantage model.

Chapter 10 provides a summary of the basics of ecological economics as “the humane economy for the 21st Century,” as well as a review of Max-Neef’s insightful matrix of needs and satisfiers.

Of particular interest is Chapter 11 on “the United States as an underdeveloping nation” — the process of development in reverse, or retrogression in the U.S. is chronicled in terms of unemployment, wage stagnation, increase in inequality, dependence on food stamps, bankruptcy, foreclosure, health care costs, incarceration, etc. Not happy reading, but a necessary reminder that gains from development are not permanent — they can be squandered by a corrupt elite employing a self-serving economic model to fool a distracted populace.

As a teacher of economics I was especially glad to read Chapter 12 on “the non-toxic teaching of economics.” I concur with the authors’ view that the teaching of economics today is a scandal. Reference has already been made to the dropping of history of economic thought from the curriculum — why study the errors of the past now that we know the truth? That is the arrogant attitude. And we certainly do not want any philosophical or empirical questioning of the canonical assumptions upon which the whole superstructure of mathematical deduction teeters. Growth must not be questioned because it is by definition the solution to all problems — even those that it causes.

As late as the 1960s economics students could study approaches other than the neoclassical — there were the remaining classical economists, institutional economists, the Marxians, the Keynesians, the Austrian School, Labor economics, Fabian Socialists, Market Socialists, Distributists, etc. Now there is a cartel of elite, expensive universities, “the Big Eight” as the authors call them (California, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, Yale, and MIT) to which we could add Cambridge, Oxford, and a few others. They all teach the same growth-oriented, globalizing economics. The IMF and the World Bank hire economists from many countries and pride themselves on their diversity. But the diversity of nationality and color masks homogeneity of viewpoint since 90% of these economists graduated from the Big Eight, and are comfortable with both their position and their economic views. One wag succinctly described a frequent career path as: “MIT-PhD-IMF-BMW.”

Further evidence of the corruption of economics arrives daily. The documentary film Inside Job exposed the complicity of some Big Eight faculty in the financial debacle of 2008. I recently read that the Florida State University economics department has accepted a grant from the right-wing Koch Brothers to hire two prestigious economists with acceptable views, no doubt products of the Big Eight, whose presence on the faculty will raise FSU a step on the academic ladder. All corruption in academia cannot be blamed on economics departments, but the toxicity level there is high, and Max-Neef and Smith are right to accuse. One good way for honest economics professors to fight back is to recommend this book to their students!

The book ends with a hopeful review of some concrete, real world, bottom-up, human-scale development initiatives. The World Bank and the IMF are necessarily absent from this final chapter’s discussion of moving from village to global order. Might it be that after globally integrated collapse we will move to village reconstruction, and then to a global federation of separate national economies under the principle of subsidiarity?

Elitist Growth by Cheap Labor Policies

by Herman Daly

A front-page story in the Washington Post might have considered other reasons why growth has not led to more employment, besides simply claiming that growth has been “too slow.” First, the jobs that workers would have gone back to have largely been off-shored as employers sought cheap foreign labor. Second, cheap foreign labor by way of illegal immigration seems to have been welcomed by U.S. employers trying to fill the remaining jobs at home. And third, jobs have been “outsourced” to the consumer (the ultimate source of cheap labor), who is now his own checkout clerk, travel agent, baggage handler, bank teller, gas station attendant, etc.

These obvious but unmentioned facts suggest other policies for increasing employment beside the mindless call for more “growth,” gratuitously labeled “economic growth” when on balance it has become uneconomic.

Let us consider each of the three reasons and related policy implications a bit more.

First, off-shoring production is not “trade.” The good whose production has been off-shored is sold in the U.S. to satisfy the same market that its domestic production used to satisfy. But now, thanks to cheap foreign labor, profit is greater and/or prices are lower, mainly the former. Off-shoring increases U.S. imports, and since no product has been exported in exchange, it also increases the U.S. trade deficit. Because the production of the good now takes place abroad, stimulus spending in the U.S. simply stimulates U.S. imports and employment abroad. Demand for U.S. labor consequently declines, lowering U.S. employment and/or wages. It is absurd that off-shoring should be defended in the name of “free trade.” No goods are traded. The absurdity is compounded by the fact that off-shoring entails moving capital abroad, and international immobility of capital is one of the premises on which the doctrine of comparative advantage rests — and the policy of free trade is based on comparative advantage! If we really believe in free trade, then we must place limits on capital mobility and off-shoring. Budget deficits, printing money, and other measures to stimulate growth no longer do much to raise U.S. employment.

Second, for those jobs that have not yet, or cannot easily be off-shored (e.g., services such as bartending, waiting tables, gardening, home repairs, etc.), cheap foreign labor has become available via illegal immigration. U.S. employers seem to welcome illegal immigrants. Most are good and honest workers, willing to work for little, and unable to complain about conditions given their illegal status. What could be better for union busting and driving down wages of the American working class? The federal government, ever sensitive to the interests of the employing class, has done an obligingly poor job of enforcing our immigration laws. Immigration reform requires deciding how many immigrants to accept and who gets priority. All countries do that. Most are far more restrictive than the U.S. Whatever reforms we make, however, will be moot unless we control the border and actually enforce the laws we will have democratically enacted. Ironically our tolerance for illegal immigration seems to have caused a compensatory tightening up on legal immigrants — longer waiting periods and more stringent requirements. It is cheaper to “enforce” our immigration laws against those who obey them than against those who break them — but quite unfair, and perceived as such by many legal immigrants and people attempting to immigrate legally. This is a very perverse selection process for new residents.

Third, the automation of services of bank tellers, gas station attendants, etc. is usually praised as labor-saving technical progress. To some extent it is that, but it also represents labor-shifting to the consumer. The consumer does not even get the minimum wage for his extra work, even considering the dubious claim that he enjoys lower prices in return for his self-service. Ordinary human contacts are diminished and commerce becomes more sterile and impersonally mechanical. In particular interaction between people of different socio-economic classes is reduced. I remember at the World Bank, for example, that the mail clerks were about the only working class folks that professional Bank staff came into daily contact with on the premises. Even that was eliminated by automated carts that delivered mail to each office cubicle. While not highly productive, such jobs do provide a service, and also an entry into the work force, and help distribute income in a way more dignified than a dole. Reducing daily contact of World Bank staff with working class people does nothing to increase sensitivity and solidarity with the poor of the world. And of course this does not only apply to the World Bank. The idea that it is degrading to be a gas station attendant or mail handler, and that we will re-educate them to become petroleum engineers or investment bankers, is delusional.

Excuse my populism, but the working class in the U.S., as well as in other countries, really exists and is here to stay. Cheap labor policies in the name of “growth and global competitiveness” are class-based and elitist. Even when dressed in the emperor’s new wardrobe of free trade, globalization, open borders, and automation, they remain policies of growth by cheap labor, pushing employment and wages down and profits up. And we wonder why the U.S. distribution of income is becoming more unequal? Obviously it must be because growth is too slow — the single cause of all our problems! That we would be better off if we were richer is a definitional truism. The question is, does further growth in GDP really make us richer, or is it making us poorer by increasing the uncounted costs of growth faster than the measured benefits? That simple question is taboo among economists and politicians.