A Thirst for Economic Change?

by Erik Alm

I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it. –John Stuart Mill, On the Stationary State

ErikAlm2In the face of global resource shortages and the alarming rate at which we are losing species, many of us share the hope that J.S. Mill so ominously communicates in one of his better-known quotes. But what will it take to catalyze the shift to an economic state that respects our natural boundaries? Perhaps the catalyst could be a life-altering dearth of a critical resource that, until recently, most of us in the United States have taken for granted: water.

The idea that a water shortage like the one California is currently facing could cool the economic engines that have elevated the state to the eighth-largest economy in the world has been discussed in local media and state government offices alike. The Desert Sun, a paper serving the rapidly-growing Coachella Valley in the southern part of the state, recently posed the question of whether water worries will slow development in the valley. The New York Times expressed its worries about California’s continuing economic vigor by stating the drought “. . . is forcing a reconsideration of whether the aspiration of untrammeled growth that has for so long been this state’s driving engine has run against the limits of nature.”

CA Drought - Kevin Cortopassi

Many proposed policies that could stem our water problems are discarded because they are seen as anti-growth. Photo Credit: Kevin Cortopassi

Replying to questions like these, the head of the State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus, says “We have a long way to go before we have tapped out our resources,” and prospects for economic growth are still as bright as ever. The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office reinforces this view in a brief report released in mid-April. Citing a recent Wall Street Journal survey of economists, the report concludes “. . . we currently do not expect the drought to have a significant effect on statewide economic activity or state government revenues.”

Many of these rosy economic predictions rely upon hopeful qualifiers such as assuming the drought will be short-lived, that the recently imposed water restrictions will not be expanded, or that water districts will continue to receive adequate allocations from the State Water Project. These assumptions may prove to be overly optimistic.

Surface water, which normally covers 60% of the state’s demand, is predicted to be in even worse shape this year due to the lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. California’s State Water Project, which distributes this water throughout the state, supplying drinking water to more than 23 million people and helping to irrigate agricultural lands in the Central Valley, was able to deliver to water districts only 5% of their contracted amounts in 2014. Another important source of surface water, the Colorado River, is also showing the effects of extreme drought with Lake Powell, the system’s biggest reservoir, below 45% of its capacity.

Groundwater, which is used to supply the other 40% of the state’s demands, and up to 60% during times of inadequate surface flows, faces similar stresses. “The withdrawals far outstrip the replenishment. We can’t keep doing this” says Jay Famiglietti, a NASA scientist who studies water supplies in California. The recent well-drilling boom that is providing California farmers with at least a temporary solution to their water woes seems to be adding urgency to his words.

As the search for additional water becomes more desperate, some have been thirstily eyeing the amount allocated to ecosystems. California’s Department of Water Resources estimates that 50% of the state’s water is used by the environment, 40% by agriculture, and 10% by urban users. Even with a quarter of the state’s native freshwater fishes being listed as either threatened or endangered and many more headed in the same direction, some interest groups have advocated reducing environmental water allocations, even at the peril of critical habitats.

This “people versus fish” debate is largely due to a misunderstanding about the way the environmental use statistic is calculated. Most of the water “used by the environment” flows in state and federally protected rivers in the sparsely populated North Coast where there are few alternative uses. In the majority of the state, environmental use of water is far from dominant at 33%, with agriculture accounting for 53% and urban users at 14%. Noting the dramatic devastation that California wetlands have suffered over the last 150 years, including the loss of Tulare and Owens Lakes and the removal of 95% of the native vegetation along Central Valley creeks and rivers, the state appears determined to allocate more water to natural systems. A 2014 bond measure approved up to $200 million to acquire water rights for environmental use and funding mechanisms for restoration of wetlands are also being sought.

Another hope for increased water security is desalination. Plants similar to the one in Santa Barbara, CA, which is being restarted after years of laying idle, have been used to provide a technological solution to water shortages in some parched and energy-rich parts of the world. However, due to high initial capital costs, stringent permitting requirements, huge energy demands, potential environmental harm, and a final product that is more than four-times as expensive as surface water (and nearly double the cost of building a water recycling system), it seems unlikely that desalination will be able to make up for the increasing shortfalls that our current trajectory of growth will bring.

In an apparent public admission that the state has no viable ideas for increasing supply, on the first of April, like a bad joke, Governor Brown called for the state’s first ever mandatory water use restrictions. “Folks realize we have now reached the limits of supply, so the focus is on demand.” says Heather Cooley, water program director for the Pacific Institute, a water-resources research group in Oakland, CA. Proposals for reducing demand range from increasing water efficiency to $10,000 fines for residents and businesses caught being wasteful. However, some people have pointed out the hypocrisy of the water restrictions. Craig Ewing, president of the Desert Water Agency which serves Palm Springs and other communities, has heard it often, “The public is faster to react to these things than governmental institutions, and so the public is already saying, ‘Why are we seeing new development when we’re being asked to cut back?’ And the governments are going to be slower to figure out, ‘Well, how do we deal with all of this?’”

Currently, many proposed policies that could effectively stem our water problems are immediately discarded as unworkable because they are seen as anti-growth. Temporary building moratoria for areas without a secure water source are a case in point. However, if the public were better informed about the negative consequences to their quality of life from policies that support continued growth even in the face of critical resource shortages, perhaps they would favor policies with growth-curbing corollaries instead. Unfortunately, for some in the state, like those in East Porterville whose homes are currently without any running water at all, the choice of whether or not to grow their community has been obviated. Their focus now is firmly fixed on survival.

Three More Growth Fallacies

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyIn a previous essay I identified eight fallacies about growth. Well, at the risk of starting a growth industry, here are three more.

1. As natural resources become scarce we can substitute capital for resources and continue to grow. Growth economists assume a high degree of substitutability between factors of production. But if one considers a realistic analytic description of production, as given in Georgescu-Roegen’s fund-flow model, one sees that factors are of two qualitatively different kinds: (1) resource flows that are physically transformed into flows of product and waste and (2) capital and labor funds, the agents or instruments of transformation that are not themselves physically embodied in the product. There are varying degrees of substitution between different resource flows, and between the funds of labor and capital. But the basic relation between resource flow on the one hand, and a capital (or labor) fund on the other, is complementarity. You cannot bake a hundred-pound cake with only one pound of ingredients, no matter how many cooks and ovens you have. Efficient cause (capital) does not substitute for material cause (resources). Material cause and efficient cause are related as complements, and the one in short supply is limiting. Complementarity makes possible the existence of a limiting factor, which cannot exist under substitutability. In yesterday’s empty world the limiting factor was capital; in today’s full world remaining natural resources have become limiting.

This fundamental change in the pattern of scarcity has not been incorporated into the thinking of growth economists. Nor have they paid sufficient attention to the fact that capital is itself made from and maintained by natural resource flows. It is hard for a factor to substitute for that from which it is made! And consider yet another oversight. Substitution is reversible — if capital is a good substitute for resources, then resources are a good substitute for capital. But then why, historically, would we ever have accumulated capital in the first place if nature had already given us a good substitute? In sum, the claim that capital is a good substitute for natural resources is absurd.

In reply to these criticisms, growth economists point to modern agriculture, which they consider the prime example of substitution of capital for resources. But modern, mechanized agriculture has simply substituted one set of resource flows for another, and one set of funds for another. It has partially replaced soil, sunlight, rainfall, and manure, with other resources, namely fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and water pumped from rivers and aquifers. The old resource flows (soil, sunlight, rain, manure) were to a significant degree replaced by new resource flows (fossil fuels, chemicals, irrigation water), not by capital! The old fund factors of labor, draft animals, and hand tools were replaced by new fund factors of tractors, harvesters, etc. In other words new fund factors substituted for old fund factors, and new resource flows substituted for old resource flows. Modern agriculture involves the substitution of capital for labor (both funds), and the substitution of nonrenewable resources for renewable resources (both flows). In energy terms it was largely the substitution of fossil fuels for solar energy, a move with short-term benefits and long-term costs. But there was no substitution of capital funds for resource flows. The case of mechanization of agriculture does not contradict the complementarity of fund and flow factors in production.

2. Space, the high frontier, frees us from the finitude of the earth, and opens unlimited resources for growth. In a secular age where many have lost faith in the spiritual dimension of existence, and where the concept of “man as creature” is eclipsed by that of “man as creator,” it is to be expected that science fiction might be called on to fill the dead void of space with a happy population of “survivors.” The spiritual insights of millennia are replaced by technocratic projections of the “Singularity” in which mankind attains the final goal of (random?) evolution and becomes a new and immortal species, thanks to the salvific power of exponential growth in information processing technology. Moore’s Law promises eternal silicon-based life for the new elect who can stay alive until the Singularity; oblivion for those who die too soon! And this comes from materialists who think that they have outgrown religion!

Space tourism: a silly reason to believe in infinite economic growth.

Of course many technical space accomplishments are real and impressive. But how do they free us from the finitude of the earth and open up unlimited resources for growth? Space accomplishments have been extremely expensive in terms of terrestrial resources, and have yielded few extra-terrestrial resources — useless moon rocks that some fledgling astronaut managed to steal from NASA in a bungled attempt to sell them for their collector’s value, plus some space tourism for a few billionaires to take orbital joyrides. On the positive side of the ledger we can list communications satellites, but they are oriented to earth, and while they can help us use earth’s resources more efficiently, they do not bring in new resources. And apparently some orbits are getting crowded with satellite carcasses.

Robotic space exploration is a lot cheaper than manned space missions, and may (or may not) yield knowledge worth the investment to a society that cannot afford basic necessities and elementary education for many. The opportunity cost of indulging the expensive curiosity of a few is to leave undeveloped the capacities of many. Were it not for the heavy military connection (muted in the official NASA propaganda) we would probably be spending much less on space. Cuts in NASA’s budget have led to the over-hyped reaction by the “space community” in proclaiming a pseudo-religious technical quest to discover “whether or not we are alone in the universe,” as opposed to how to zap other earthlings with laser beams from space. Another major goal is to find a planet suitable for colonization by earthlings. The latter is sometimes justified by the observation that since we are clearly destroying the earth we need a new home — to also destroy?

The numbers — astronomical distances and time scales — effectively rule out dreams of space colonization. But another consideration is equally daunting. If we are unable to control population and production growth on earth, which is our forgiving and natural home, out of which we were created and with which we have evolved and adapted, then what makes us think we can live as aliens within the much tighter and unforgiving discipline of a space colony on a dead rock in a cold vacuum? There we would encounter limits to growth raised to the hundredth power. Sorry for being such a “pessimist!”

3. Without economic growth all progress is at an end. On the contrary, without growth (now actually uneconomic growth if correctly measured), true progress finally will have a chance. As ecological economists have long argued, growth is quantitative physical increase in the matter-energy throughput, the metabolic maintenance flow of the economy beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. Development, in contrast, is qualitative improvement in the capacity of a given throughput to provide for the maintenance and enjoyment of life in community. The main ways to develop are through technical improvement in resource efficiency, and ethical improvement in our wants and priotities.

Development without growth beyond the earth’s carrying capacity is true progress. Growth means larger jaws and a bigger digestive tract for more rapidly converting more resources into more waste, in the service of unexamined and frequently destructive individual wants. Development means better digestion of a non-growing throughput, and more worthy and satisfying goals to which our life energies could be devoted.

Growth, Debt, and the World Bank

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyWhen I was in graduate school in economics in the early 1960s we were taught that capital was the limiting factor in growth and development. Just inject capital into the economy and it would grow. As the economy grew, you could then re-invest the growth increment as new capital and make it grow exponentially. Eventually the economy would be rich. Originally, to get things started, capital came from savings, from confiscation, or from foreign aid or investment, but later out of the national growth increment itself. Capital embodied technology, the source of its power. Capital was magic stuff, but scarce. It all seemed convincing at the time.

Many years later when I worked for the World Bank it was evident that capital was no longer the limiting factor, if indeed it ever had been. Trillions of dollars of capital was circling the globe looking for projects in which to become invested so it could grow. The World Bank understood that the limiting factor was what they called “bankable projects” — concrete investments that could embody abstract financial capital and make its value grow at an acceptable rate, usually ten percent per annum or more, doubling every seven years. Since there were not enough bankable projects to absorb the available financial capital the WB decided to stimulate the creation of such projects with “country development teams” set up in the borrowing countries, but with WB technical assistance. No doubt many such projects were useful, but it was still hard to grow at ten percent without involuntarily displacing people, or running down natural capital and counting it as income, both of which were done on a grand scale. And the loans had to be repaid. Of course they did get repaid, frequently not out of the earnings of the projects which were often disappointing, but out of the general tax revenues of the borrowing governments. Lending to sovereign governments with the ability to tax greatly increases the likelihood of being repaid — and perhaps encourages a bit of laxity in approving projects.

Where did all this excess financial capital come from? Not from savings (China excepted), but from new money and easy credit generated by our fractional reserve banking system, amplified by increased leverage in the purchase of stocks. Recipients of new money bid resources away from existing uses by offering a higher price. If there are unemployed resources and if the new uses are profitable then the temporary rise in prices is offset by new production — by growth. But resource and environmental scarcity, along with a shortage of bankable projects, put the brakes on this growth, and resulted in too much financial capital trying to become incarnate in too few bankable projects.

So the WB had to figure out why its projects yielded low returns. The answer sketched above was ideologically unacceptable because it hinted at ecological limits to growth. A more acceptable answer soon became clear to WB economists — micro level projects could not be productive in a macro environment of irrational and inefficient government policy. The solution was to restructure the macro economies by “structural adjustment” — free trade, export-led growth, balanced budgets, strict control of inflation, elimination of social subsidies, deregulation, suspension of labor and environmental protection laws — the so-called Washington Consensus. How to convince borrowing countries to make these painful “structural adjustments” at the macro level to create the environment in which WB financed projects would be productive? The answer was, conveniently, a new form of lending, structural adjustment loans, to encourage or bribe the policy reforms stipulated by the term “structural adjustment.” An added reason for structural adjustment, or “policy lending,” was to move lots of dollars quickly to countries like Mexico to ease their balance of payments difficulty in repaying loans they had received from private US banks. Also, policy loans, now about half of WB lending, require no lengthy and expensive project planning and supervision the way project loans do. The money moves quickly. The WB definition of efficiency became, it seemed, “moving the maximum amount of money with the minimum amount of thought.”

Why, one might ask, would a country borrow money at interest to make policy changes that it could make on its own without any loans, if it thought the policies were good ones? Maybe they did not really favor the policies, and therefore needed a bribe to do what was in their own best interests. Maybe the goal of the current borrowing government was simply to get the new loan, splash the money around among friends and relatives, and leave the next government to pay it back with interest.

Such thoughts got little attention at the WB which was haunted by the specter of an impending “negative payments flow,” that is, repayments of old loans plus interest greater than the volume of new loans. Would the WB eventually shrink and disappear as unnecessary? A horrible thought for any bureaucracy! But the alternative to a negative payments flow for the WB is ever-increasing debt for the borrowing countries. Of course the WB did not claim to be in the business of increasing the debt of poor countries. Rather it was fostering growth by injecting capital and increasing the debtor countries’ capacity to absorb capital from outside. So what if the debt grew, as long as GDP was growing. The assumption was that the real sector could grow as fast as the financial sector — that physical wealth could grow as fast as monetary debt.

The main goal of the WB is to make loans, to push the money out the door, to be a money pump. If financial capital were really the limiting factor countries would line up with good projects and the WB would ration capital among countries. But financial capital is superabundant and good projects are scarce, so the WB had to actively push the money. To speed up the pump they send country development teams out to invent projects; if the projects fail, then they invent structural adjustment loans to induce a more favorable macro environment; if structural adjustment loans are treated as bribes by corrupt borrowing governments, the WB does not complain too much for fear of slowing the money pump and incurring a “negative payments flow.”

If capital is no longer the magic limiting factor whose presence unleashes economic growth, then what is it?

“Capital,” says Frederick Soddy,”merely means unearned income divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100” (Cartesian Economics, p. 27). He further explains that, “Although it may comfort the lender to think that his wealth still exists somewhere in the form of “capital,” it has been or is being used up by the borrower either in consumption or investment, and no more than food or fuel can it be used again later. Rather it has become debt, an indent on future revenues…”

In other words capital in the financial sense is the future expected net revenue from a project divided by the rate of interest and multiplied by 100. Rather than magic stuff it is an indent, a lien, on the future real production of the economy — in a word it is a debt to be repaid, or alternatively, and perhaps preferably, to not be repaid but kept as the source of interest payments far into the future.

Of course debt is incurred in exchange for real resources to be used now, which as Soddy says cannot be used again in the future. But if the financed project can extract more resources employing more labor in the future to increase the total revenue of society, then the debt can be paid off with interest, and with some of the extra revenue left over as profit. But this requires an increased throughput of matter and energy, and increased labor — in other words it requires physical growth of the economy. Such growth in yesterday’s empty-world economy was reasonable — in today’s full-world economy it is not. It is now generally recognized that there is too much debt worldwide, both public and private. The reason so much debt was incurred is that we have had absurdly unrealistic expectations about growth. We never expected that growth itself would begin to cost us more than it was worth, making us poorer, not richer. But it did. And the only solution our economists, bankers, and politicians have come up with is more of the same! Could we not at least take a short time-out to discuss the idea of a steady-state economy?

Fitting the Name to the Named

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyThere may well be a be a better name than “steady-state economy”, (SSE) but both the classical economists (especially John Stuart Mill) and the past few decades of discussion, not to mention CASSE’s good work, have given considerable currency to “steady-state economy” both as concept and name. Also both the name and concept of  a “steady state” are independently familiar to demographers, population biologists, and physicists. The classical economists used the term “stationary state” but meant by it exactly what we mean by steady-state economy—briefly, a constant population and stock of physical wealth. We have added the condition that these stocks should be maintained constant by a low rate entropic throughput, one that is well within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Any new name for this idea should be sufficiently better to compensate for losing the advantages of historical continuity and interdisciplinary familiarity. Also, SSE conveys the recognition of biophysical constraints and the intention to live within them economically—which is exactly why it can’t help evoking some initial negative reaction in a growth-dominated world. There is an honesty and forthright clarity about the term “steady-state economy” that should not be sacrificed to the short-term political appeal of vagueness.

A confusion arises with neoclassical growth economists’ use of the term “steady-state growth” to refer to the case where labor and capital grow at the same rate, thus maintaining a constant labor to capital ratio, even though both absolute magnitudes are growing. This should have been called “proportional growth”, or perhaps “steady growth”. The term “steady-state growth” is inept because growth is a process, not a state, not even a state of dynamic equilibrium.

Having made my terminological preference clear, I should add that there is nothing wrong with other people using various preferred synonyms, as long as we all mean basically the same thing. Steady state, stationary state, dynamic equilibrium, microdynamic-macrostatic economy, development without growth, degrowth, post-growth economy, economy of permanence, “new” economy, “mature” economy. These are all in use already, including by me at times. I have learned that English usage evolves quite independently of me, although like others I keep trying to “improve” it for both clarity and rhetorical advantage. If some other term catches on and becomes dominant then so be it, as long as it denotes the reality we agree on. Let a thousand synonyms bloom and linguistic natural selection will go to work. Also it is good to remind sister organizations that their favorite term, when actually defined, is usually a close synonym to SSE. If it is not then we have a difference of substance rather than of terminology.

Out of France now comes the “degrowth” (decroissance) movement. This arises from the recognition that the present scale of the economy is too large to be maintained in a steady state—its required throughput exceeds the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem of which it is a part. This is almost certainly true. Nevertheless “degrowth”, just like growth, is a temporary process for reaching an optimal or at least sustainable scale that we then should strive to maintain in a steady state.

Some say it is senseless to advocate a steady state unless we first have attained, or can at least specify, the optimal level at which to remain stationary. On the contrary, it is useless to know the optimum unless we first know how to live in a steady state. Otherwise knowing the optimum level will just allow us to wave goodbye to it as we grow beyond it—or as we “degrow” below it.  Optimal level is one thing; optimal growth rate is something else. Once we have reached the optimal level then the optimal growth rate is zero; if we are below that level the temporary optimal growth rate is at least known to be positive; if we are above the optimal level we at least know that the temporary growth rate should be negative. But the first order of business is to recognize the long run necessity of the steady state, and to stop positive growth. Once we have done that, then we can worry about how to “degrow” to a more sustainable level, and how fast.

There is really no conflict between the SSE and “degrowth” since no one advocates negative growth as a permanent process; and no one advocates trying to maintain a steady state at the unsustainable present scale of population and consumption. But many people do advocate continuing positive growth beyond the present excessive scale, and they are the ones in control, and who need to be confronted by a united opposition!

Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, adopted by the “degrowth” movement as its posthumous founder, indeed recognized that the very long run growth rate must be negative given the entropy law and the final dissolution of the universe. But he did not advocate speeding up that cosmic result by negative growth as an economic policy, nor for that matter did he in the least advocate a steady-state economy! In fact he speculated that the destiny of mankind might be to have a short, fiery, and exciting life rather than a long and uneventful one. He did, however, tentatively suggest a “minimal bio-economic program”[1] that would surely reduce growth. In general he was interested in what is possible more than in what is desirable. The question—given the limits of the possible, what is the most desirable policy for mankind?—was not his main focus, although he did not entirely ignore it. The closest he came to explicitly dealing with that question was in the following footnote[2]:

Is it not true that mankind’s problem is to economize S (a stock) for as large an amount of life as possible, which implies to minimize sj (a flow) for some “good life?

In other words, should we not strive to maximize cumulative lives ever to be lived over time by depleting S (terrestrial low-entropy stocks) at an annual rate sj that is low, but sufficient for a “good life”? There is no point in maximizing years lived in misery, so the qualification “for a good life” is important. I have always thought that Georgescu-Roegen should have put that question in bold in the text, rather than hiding it in a footnote. True enough, eventually S will be gone and mankind will revert to what he called “a berry-picking economy” until the sun burns out, if not driven to extinction sooner by some other event. But in the meantime, striving for a steady state at a resource use rate sufficient for a good (but not luxurious) life, seems to me a worthy goal, a goal of maximizing the cumulative life satisfaction possible under limited total resource constraints. This puts at the very center of economics the questions:

Needless to say these questions have not been central to modern economics—indeed, not even peripheral!

Georgescu-Roegen did not like the idea of “sustainability” any more than that of a steady-state economy because he interpreted both to mean “ecological salvation” or perpetual life for our species on earth—which of course flies in the teeth of the entropy law. And he was right about that. So sustainability should be understood as longevity, not eternal species-life in the sense of perpetuity. Clear scientific thinking about “forever” seems, interestingly, to lead to the religious model of death and resurrection, new creation, not perpetual continuation of this creation. Perpetuity in this world is just a glorified perpetual motion machine! To think about forever we must cross from science into theology. But longevity (a long and good life for both individual and species), even if it falls short of forever, or “ecological salvation”, is still a worthy goal both for scientists and theologians, not to mention economists. A steady-state economy is arguably the best strategy for achieving longevity—regardless of what we call it.

[1] N. Georgescu-Roegen, “Energy and Economic Myths”, reprinted in H. Daly and K. Townsend, Valuing the Earth, MIT Press, 1993, p. 103-4.

[2] Ibid. p. 107, fn 11.