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Review of Collision Course (Endless Growth on a Finite Planet)

Kerryn Higgs, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThis informative book is about the rise of economic growth to the status of the number one goal of nations; the short-lived challenge to that dogma from the book The Limits to Growth (1972); the solidity of the Limits position as confirmed by subsequent data and the analyses of others; the intellectual poverty and dishonesty of the growth economists’ reaction against the Limits argument; and how it nevertheless happened that through modern public relations and well-financed ideological think tanks, the intellectually weaker growth arguments prevailed. Higgs focuses on the US story, but with informative parallels from her native Australia.

Higgs documents the cogency of the Limits position and how the business as usual projection of the World Model has for over thirty years fit the data better than any standard economic model. She also exposes how the economists resorted to ridicule and arrogance as a substitute for reasoned refutation in their response to Limits. This story is well known to me because I was a participant in the debate. I can testify that Higgs’ retelling is accurate and insightful. It is also refreshing to me that MIT Press published her book. This indicates the welcome likelihood that some anonymous member of the MIT department of economics no longer has a veto over the decisions of the MIT Press.*

Collision CourseWhat to me was new and challenging was Higgs’ detailed historical consideration of the following question: given that the Limits position is fundamentally correct, and that the growth economists’ “refutation” is based on ignorance, vested interests, and dishonesty, how did it come to pass that the economists’ erroneous position prevailed over the much more cogent and scientifically based Limits position? That it has done so can hardly be doubted, even if one still hopes for better in the future. For those of us who believe in the persuasive power of reasoned argument, this fact, and Higgs’ explanation of it, is a real kick in the head. Nor does it bode well for democracy. How did it happen? Can we learn from it? Can we recover from it?

The starting point for Higgs’ explanation is the classic 1928 work, Propaganda, by Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and pioneer in public relations. Bernays wrote:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country . . . It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

Propaganda becomes advertising, which becomes public relations identifying “the greater good” as defined and propagated by well-endowed “public interest” think tanks. According to Higgs, soon-to-be Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Jr.’s 1971 memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce gave strategy and operational structure to Bernays’ philosophy. It led to the establishment of think tanks with the explicit purpose of defending “free-market capitalism” against labor unions, welfare legislation, and taxes on business. This docket was extended to include combating environmentalism and any questioning of the primacy of economic growth that would only “confuse” the masses. This opposition was already being put in place by the 1972 publication of Limits.

Democracy presupposes a citizenry capable of thinking for themselves rather than being misled by propaganda. But with the average family now holding two full-time jobs that are often uncertain, plus raising kids, there is little time for keeping informed and understanding increasingly complex economic issues. The appeal of easy ready-made answers lends force to Bernays’ cynical view of democracy as the art of manipulating the opinions of the masses.

In addition to the business PR opposition, there was the fierce opposition of academic economists who were religiously committed to the “Keynesian-Neoclassical growth synthesis.” The Limits argument had to be opposed because if it were true, then very many very important economists would have been very wrong about a very important issue for a very long time. So Limits faced the united opposition of business interests represented by the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the propagandistic think tanks, and the academic economists. In the face of such concerted opposition, it is remarkable that Limits, by virtue of logical argument based on scientific premises, managed to get the significant hearing that it temporarily did. But it has not prevailed against the overwhelming growth coalition.

One of the verbal PR tricks is to use the word “free” as in “free market” and “free trade,” instead of the more precise word “deregulated.” The deregulated market, with deregulated global trade and deregulated finance, is destroying the freedom of the vast majority to attain a sufficient income for a decent life. Higgs shows how income and wealth have been enormously concentrated by the growth economy, and chides the Left, with which she is usually sympathetic, for being stubbornly slow to recognize the costs of growth, and for persisting in the belief that the “bigger pie theory” is the best hope for the working class.

The anti-Limits PR apparatus is so strong now that it even dares to oppose science in order to defend growth. This is most evident today in the denial of climate change and the attack on climate scientists financed by the fossil fuel industry. This strategy of “sowing and selling doubt” was previously used with some success by the tobacco industry. The American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, The Club for Growth, the Heartland Institute, etc. can be counted on to conduct “independent” studies that reach conclusions supporting deregulated international trade, deregulated finance, repeal of environmental and welfare legislation, etc., all in the name of growth.

Even the public policy schools in universities, which have been relatively independent and objective, are now often staffed by joint appointments with these moneyed think tanks. This I have observed from having taught in a school of public policy for fifteen years. Economics departments, where I also have long experience, have become almost irrelevant, as Joan Robinson put it some time ago, having “run off to hide in thickets of algebra, leaving the important questions to journalists,” –who by default then get their information from the think tanks. And of course the corporate media are only too happy to eat what they are freely fed.

At least the Limits debate aroused economists from their dogmatic slumber enough to make a few ad hominem counter-attacks in self-defense. But they are too self-confident to see the need for actual thought, and have gone back to sleep. Higgs’ book is a wake-up call, but offers little on specifically what policies to adopt once awake. Maybe that will be the subject of a future effort–first things first, she might well say.

A short review cannot do justice to such an excellent and detailed book. In conclusion I want to return to the point that Higgs’ explanation of the ascendancy of the weaker anti-Limits position constitutes a kick in the head for those of us who believe in the persuasive power of reasoned argument. Higgs’ book itself is a reasoned argument. She has clearly not given up on persuasion. But she reminds those of us who have a tendency to forget, that reason and honesty must confront power and corruption, not just honest error. Even correcting the honest error requires a substantial paradigm shift–a change from the pre-analytic vision of the economy as the whole with nature as a part, to the recognition that the economy is the part. The economy is an open subsystem of the enveloping ecosphere that is finite, non-growing, materially closed, and entropic. Reason and truth will ultimately prevail, but Higgs makes it clear that it will take longer and be a more costly fight than many of us have imagined.

 

*For details the interested reader may see H. Daly, Beyond Growth, fn. 5 on p. 225.

The Visible Hand: Manipulating Market Prices by Influencing Laws and Regulations

by Max Kummerow

Recently a member of a mailing list for resource economists asked how to value endangered species given that they are not bought and sold in markets. A common method is to infer prices (“existence values”) by indirect methods such as answers to surveys (e.g., “How much would you be willing to pay to keep tigers from going extinct?”). An issue raised in the online discussion was whether species grow more valuable as they become more scarce and their numbers fall toward zero. If prices keep changing, what is the “right” price?

Thought experiment: suppose a keystone species is about to go extinct, but few people know about the threat. Oh, heck, let’s be more realistic. Leading ecological authorities believe that the effects of climate change will drive 1/3 or more of the world’s species to extinction by 2100 with unpredictable system-wide effects. Meanwhile, the owners of $17 trillion of fossil-fuel reserves are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to convince the public that the threats from climate change are overstated or non-existent (See Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article or Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt).

How can we have any idea about fundamental values (that is, “correct” utility-maximizing efficient market prices) with so much misinformation floating around? Advertising creates a set of consumption preferences tilted towards items sold by companies more concerned about profits than benefits to society.

Prices depend on preferences, and preferences depend on information. Knowledge of the unhealthy and even fatal effects of smoking changed preferences about and prices of tobacco. Such changes would also occur over time as people gain knowledge about the threats of extinction and climate change.

By similar means, misinformation and strategic uncertainty lead to mispricing. If such mispricing in the carbon market continues, the predicted result is a “tragedy of the commons” (collective irrationality, market failure) with features like Miami, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles ending up below sea level, mass species extinctions, crop failures, etc.

Economic systems are complex, and many external costs and benefits are not factored into prices or people’s decisions in the market. Time lags add to the complexity. What if it will take 2,000 years before climate change makes the planet too hot for human life? Such a time lag makes it harder to come to the best decision about whether to build a new coal-fired power plant.

Species extinctions may be portents of broader problems (e.g., climate change), akin to canaries in a coal mine. The same factors driving them extinct — various impacts of growing human populations and economies — may be driving us extinct in the longer run. Does it make sense to value threatened species without considering the linkage to these other related problems? An endangered species itself might be worth $1, yet the factors driving it toward extinction might cause $100,000 worth of damage over the long run, or maybe even infinite damage from our point of view if extinction extends to humans. We need a better benefit-cost picture — a larger, genuine, and more complete accounting.

Another major problem with prices is that they only reflect the preference of those who hold power in markets. Perhaps polar bears should have standing when it comes to determining prices. They are intelligent, sentient beings with the most at stake when ice melts, so maybe their preferences ought to be factored into decisions about the Keystone Pipeline and exploitation of tar sands oil. What about future generations? Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz called this problem “incomplete markets” leading to market failure and universal mispricing.

There are some things markets do very well, but only if the institutional framework (rules of the game) ensures that prices reflect all costs and benefits. Laws, lobbying, culture, taxes, regulations — all kinds of institutions collectively created by societies — have enormous influences on market prices or even the existence of markets. So, to some degree, through these institutions, we choose price levels through a “visible hand” of policies and institutions. Stiglitz points out that the deregulation policies that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 did not come out of nowhere, but rather from intense lobbying by stakeholders at banks and other people whose profits were restricted by regulations — a situation in which prices were set by something like a visible-policy hand instead of the invisible hand of the market.

Because of the difficulty of getting prices right, we might do better to regard creation as sacred and take the conservative position of Aldo Leopold who said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”

Valuations always depend on preferences. Economists call prices “revealed preferences.” If we “prefer” to settle for a world without many wonderful creatures, then we won’t attach much worth to them. But if we value them for their intrinsic beauty and their relationship to us (we do share DNA with every living thing), then we’ll attach more worth to them. So rather than measuring values, perhaps we should be trying to create value by improving preferences.

Examples of worldwide mispricing and market failures that need institutional corrections include:

  • Energy — too cheap due to climate change, extinctions, and negative effects on future generations.
  • Having children — too cheap since growing population will raise real prices of land, food, and energy, and contribute to climate change and other global environmental problems.
  • Endangered species — too cheap because ecosystem interrelationships are poorly understood, and indirect effects could be enormous.
  • Economic growth — overvalued because growth negatively affects aggregate utility and public goods (“the commons” such as air, water, soil, species diversity, ecosystem health, and climate) once we begin to reach the limits to growth.

Most economics students are still taught that following market price signals leads to the best of all possible worlds (market efficiency and maximum aggregate utility). But the examples of under- and over-valuation contained in the short list above suggest that humanity is headed for trouble if we choose to let market prices and self-interested institutions’ manipulation of prices control outcomes. The markets we rely on fail to generate utility-maximizing prices for goods and services and for the future of humanity. Thinking of ourselves as an endangered species, what is it worth to keep us alive?

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics.  He is currently studying population issues in Perth, Australia.

More People, Less Unemployment?

by Max Kumerow

Bill Clinton took a welcome step toward reality. In his Democratic Convention speech, he pointed out that cutting taxes on rich people and fighting endless wars increased federal debt, and more of the same would make things even worse. Tax cuts and deregulation during the Bush administration failed to bring prosperity and helped cause the global financial collapse and widespread joblessness.

The Chicago School of economics has been preaching for decades, with lots of money from rich people adding to the volume of their message, that low taxes, small government, and deregulation are the road to nirvana. But the last time we had low taxes on the rich and little regulation was called the Great Depression. Clinton, at least, has come to understand that America made a mistake in believing the fairy tale that “government is the problem, so let’s cut rich people’s taxes.”

Clinton still remains bamboozled, however, by the neoclassical nonsense that sees economic growth as the solution to unemployment. On the Daily Show Clinton offered a demographic path to prosperity. He opined that because most of America’s competitors — Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have low birth rates and aging populations, we will have a younger workforce with a lower old-age dependency ratio, so growth will solve our unemployment and debt problems.

But the notion that population growth cures unemployment is false, just like the idea that cutting taxes on the rich raises revenue and cuts the deficit. The immigration and higher birth rates that keep the population younger also guarantee a higher young-age dependency ratio and a growing population. In a world constrained by high commodity prices and other symptoms of reaching the limits to growth, a growing population leads to high unemployment, rising cost of living, and falling wages. If a young population leads to prosperity, why aren’t places like Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda thriving? Why has China gotten so much richer since starting its “one-child” policy?

The fertility rates in all the Asian tiger economies dropped below the replacement level during the decades when their economic output increased dramatically. Hong Kong and Singapore, places with no natural resources and aging populations, have a higher per capita income than the United States. Hong Kong’s 0.97 children per woman and Singapore’s 1.26 are two of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

Birth rates that low mean each generation inherits twice as much as the one before, and a future economy can have full employment with half as many jobs. Scarcer labor means higher wages. New technology and rising productivity can be used to raise incomes instead of what happens with a growing population (i.e., society treads water as the benefits of increasing productivity are canceled out by more people consuming more resources). Low fertility is the path to high incomes and abundance. High fertility is the path to poverty and scarcity.

America’s ongoing population growth has played a role in causing higher unemployment rates, more difficulty funding education, falling real wages for workers, and the incarceration of two and a half million people. You would think that in a country where oil production has fallen by 40% since 1972, a country responsible for so much of the global climate change problem, where forests have been burning, cities have been wrecked by hurricanes, and crops have been withered by drought, we would have learned that more growth is not the answer to unemployment and budget deficits.

Bill Clinton should read ecological economists like Herman Daly. He should pay attention to systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows and Bill McKibben, and consult Al Gore about our ethical responsibilities to future generations. Growth cannot be the solution to unemployment. If all countries decide to grow their populations and their economies, ice will melt, putting cities under sea level, oil will run out, food prices will rise, wages will fall, and human welfare will be reduced, not increased. We will be poorer and fewer people will be able to find jobs.

Common sense says that continuously increasing population makes it harder to keep everyone employed, not easier. The problem is not too few jobs; it’s too many people. There are already too many people consuming too much and diminishing the earth’s long-run carrying capacity.  Economic growth is running into the wall of limited resources on a finite planet. The trends created by economic growth and population growth include higher carbon emissions and climate change, loss of forests, depleted fisheries, soil erosion, species extinctions, toxic contamination, and the possible negative effects of technologies like fracking and genetically modified foods. The path the world is on — economic and population growth — is just as unsustainable as the subprime mortgage market and trillion-dollar federal deficits and will lead to collapse.

Long-run prosperity on a planet with limited land and water and air requires a transition to a steady state economy — a transition which in turn requires a transition to a smaller global population. The higher fertility rates, immigration, and economic growth that Clinton described as the path to prosperity turn out to be the path to collapse.

Do the arithmetic, starting with this year’s federal deficit, the short crop in the Corn Belt, the number of Americans in jail, and cuts to education budgets. Growth has not been the path to full employment or deficit reduction. If Romney was right about tax cuts, we wouldn’t have a federal debt crisis. If Clinton was right about population growth, we wouldn’t have unemployment. It’s time to try something beyond politics as usual.

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics. This semester he is a visiting lecturer at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand.