The Surprising Conclusion to an Important New Book

by Herman Daly

Book Review: The Failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism and the Economic Dissolution of the West (Towards a New Economics for a Full World), by Paul Craig Roberts

About the author: Dr. Roberts was educated at Georgia Tech, University of Virginia, UC Berkeley, and Oxford University. He was Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury in the Reagan Administration, associate editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and holder of the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at Georgetown University. His honors include the US Treasury’s Meritorious Service Award, and France’s Legion of Honor.

As evident fromFailureCapitalism this description, Paul Craig Roberts writes from a very solid establishment background in academic political economy, financial journalism, and high public office. His radical critique of today’s economics and public policy will no doubt be surprising to some, but it is based on impressive knowledge and experience, as well as irresistibly convincing honesty. He did not inherit his present understanding of political economy, but developed it through study and experience, with openness to the persuasive power of facts, and willingness to question economic dogmas of both the right and the left.

The book is of special interest to ecological economists, not only for the explicit and insightful support his reasoning gives us, but also for the larger financial and political context in which he places steady-state economics. Although written mainly from a US perspective, the book includes a very clear and informative explanation of the European crisis.

Perhaps the best way to whet the prospective reader’s appetite is to reproduce the brief conclusions with which the book ends, and to testify that the rest of the book solidly supports these conclusions by clear reasoning from relevant facts.

“This book demonstrates that empty-world economic theory has failed on its own terms and that its application by policymakers has resulted in the failure of capitalism itself. Pursuing absolute advantage in cheap labor abroad, First World corporations have wrecked the prospects for First World labor, especially in the US, while concentrating income and wealth in a few hands. Financial deregulation has resulted in lost private pensions and homelessness. The cost to the US Treasury of gratuitous wars and bank bailouts threatens the social safety net, Social Security and Medicare. Western democracy and civil liberties are endangered by authoritarian responses to protests against the austerity that is being imposed on citizens in order to fund the wars and financial bailouts. Third World countries have had their economic development blocked by Western economic theories that do not reflect reality.

All of this is bad enough. But when we leave the empty-world economics and enter the economics of a full world, where nature’s capital (natural resources) and ability to absorb wastes are being exhausted, we find ourselves in a worse situation. Even if countries are able to produce empty-world economic growth, economists cannot tell if the value of the increase in GDP is greater than its cost, because the cost of nature’s capital is not included in the computation. What does it mean to say that the world GDP has increased four percent when the cost of nature’s resources are not in the calculation?

Economist Herman Daly put it well when he wrote that the elites who make the decisions “have figured out how to keep the benefits for themselves while ‘sharing’ the cost with the poor, the future, and other species (Ecological Economics, vol. 72, p. 8).

Empty-world economics with its emphasis on spurring economic growth by the accumulation of man-made capital has run its course. Full-world economics is steady-state economics, and it is past time for economists to get to work on a new economics for a full world.”

A New View of Work

by Christian Williams

Many of us have been raised according to the “Protestant work ethic.” That is to say, we were encouraged to work hard and thus become a successful and productive member of society. But what if this advice is wrong? As the economy reaches and breaches the limits to growth, working long hours causes market failures, giving weight to the idea that governments should intervene to reduce average working hours.

In the “empty world” of the past, hard work was a public good with few negative externalities on society. In today’s “full world,” work has become a common-pool resource, vulnerable to over-exploitation. In the absence of social or cultural norms to take care of this common-pool resource, governmental intervention is the best option for preventing market failure and encouraging an optimal amount of work. Unfortunately, our work ethic is worsening the situation.

Doesn't a shorter work week seem like a good idea?

Technological development over the past few centuries has allowed for a combination of reduced hours of work and increased consumption. Indeed, these are the only options for dealing with higher labor productivity (and labor productivity has consistently risen) while still maintaining high employment rates. But as the economy hits the limits to growth, the option to maintain employment through further increases in consumption becomes unavailable, meaning that work sharing becomes necessary. But OECD statistics reveal that over the past three decades there has been very little reduction in the amount of time people spend at work. Instead, consumption has risen drastically while unemployment has remained unacceptably high. If governments in high-consuming nations shift their focus from economic growth to wider sustainability objectives, they will quickly see that there are many benefits of a shorter work week.[1]

Here are some of those benefits:

  • Energy consumption would decrease, especially energy spent on getting to and from work;
  • Resource consumption would decrease as people trade some of their wages for more time;
  • With extra time, people could make more sustainable lifestyle choices (e.g., bike, walk, exercise, eat well, garden etc);
  • People would have more time for family and friends, less stress and better health;
  • Fewer people would be unemployed, and they could make an easier transition to retirement;
  • There would be more time for democratic participation, education, and exploration of other avenues to personal and community enrichment;
  • A better-rested workforce is likely to be more productive;
  • Both employers and employees could take advantage of more flexible employment circumstances.

Despite these and other potential benefits, we need a stronger case to justify government intervention. And that case begins with the recognition that “free” labor markets are far from free. Employees, even if they are aware of the benefits of working less, are often unable to reduce their working hours. Previous work time reductions have not originated through individual choice, but through strong union influence or state legislation, such as the Ten Hours Act (1847) in the UK or the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) in the U.S. Juliet Schor and other scholars have suggested that a rising imbalance of power between employers and employees over recent decades has led people to work longer hours than they would otherwise choose. Most workers simply can’t ask their boss for a four-day week.[2] Other analysts have suggested that the power of marketing has led people to spend above their means and then work more to pay their debts. Furthermore, in times of economic crisis, people feel anxious about losing their jobs. Such anxiety can drive them to work harder to protect themselves, resulting in a work intensification that contributes to the tragic “jobless recovery.”

If people will not or cannot choose to work less, what are the implications? Society suffers from three market failures:

  1. We have an overworked workforce, resulting in social costs from broken families to higher healthcare costs.
  2. We have a large, disenfranchised group of people who can no longer find work, a breach of their human right to work (Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
  3. Long hours contribute to greater production and, in turn, consumption, with a larger ecological burden being placed on future generations and other species.

These failures are the result of a rush to secure a share of a depleting common-pool resource. But as the amount of work becomes increasingly scarce, it is natural that people try to maintain and enhance their share — a “tragedy of the commons” scenario as described by Garrett Hardin. We can’t deal with this tragedy using outdated, empty-world tactics. In the empty world, we responded to technological improvements by increasing consumption. Moving forward, we must either learn to work less and be content with an excess of leisure, or reject the technological innovations that replace human labor — that is, reject the focus on efficiency and labor productivity.

To ensure that we do not contribute to the impending tragedy, we must all aim to work less. This also requires a social overhaul of the work ethic, and a new respect for idleness and leisure. Keynes, writing some eighty years ago, saw that adjusting to a life of leisure was the primary challenge for coming generations (us), as opposed to meeting basic needs as had been the challenge for all of human history. “To those who sweat for their daily bread, leisure is a longed-for sweet — until they get it”.[3] Personally, a shorter work week sounds fine to me.

[1] See for example, the report from the New Economics Foundation in the UK titled 21 Hours.

[2] For an interesting discussion on individual labor supply curves and hypotheses, see David George (2000): “Driven to Spend: Longer Work Hours as a Byproduct of Market Forces” in Working Time: International Trends, Theory and Policy Perspectives, (eds.) Lonnie Golden and Deborah Figart, Routledge, London. George refers to Schor’s book The Overworked American (1991) among others.

[3] Keynes, John M., 1963, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in Essays in Persuasion, (first published 1930), W. W. Norton & Co., New York.

Christian Williams recently completed a Master’s in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University (Sweden). His thesis focused on the shorter work week as part of a transition towards a steady state economy, including a case study and political analysis from New Zealand. If you would like an electronic copy of his thesis (with a more comprehensive version of the above argument), please contact him by email.

A Shift in the Burden of Proof

by Herman Daly

Preface for Sustainable Welfare In The Asia-Pacific: Studies Using the Genuine Progress Indicator, by Philip Lawn and Matthew Clarke, 2008

It is no small thing to shift the burden of proof. Yet that is what Lawn and Clarke, and their colleagues, have done in this remarkable study. The presumption in the “empty world” has been that growth in GDP is “economic” in the sense that it increases benefits faster than costs, as well as in the sense that this thing we call the economy is getting physically bigger. It was not previously considered necessary to distinguish the two meanings of “economic” growth. Lawn and Clarke have shown that in a large part of today’s “full world” growth in GDP often costs more than it is worth at the margin, and thus should be called “uneconomic” growth. (In this book’s language uneconomic growth occurs after a threshold at which the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) levels off or declines while GDP keeps on increasing). Advocates of GDP growth, who generally point to Asia as their best success story, heretofore were never asked to prove that such growth was in truth economic. Now, after the theoretical demonstration that uneconomic growth in the macroeconomy is quite possible, followed by the empirical demonstration that it is in fact often the case, the burden of proof in policy arguments must shift from the shoulders of growth critics to the shoulders of growth advocates. This is quite an accomplishment and needs to be strongly claimed and emphasized.

For many years I have worked with ideas that are used in this book — steady state economy, Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, contradictions between comparative advantage and international capital mobility, and others. It is a pleasure to see these ideas not only applied, but sharpened and polished as well. Although I have very little knowledge of Asia, I cannot resist recounting one relevant episode out of my limited experience. Around 1992 I was part of a World Bank mission to Thailand. This was at the end of a decade in which Thailand’s GDP had doubled. Now doubling is a big change, and ten years was within the easy memory of most adult Thais. In conversations I began to ask people how much their lives had been improved over that decade. Many said that life had been better ten years ago. I suggested that maybe life always feels better when you are ten years younger. They assured me that they had corrected for that! Some thought things were a little better, but the suggestion that life might be twice as good was considered laughable by all. This experience led me to suggest to my bosses at the World Bank that we finance a study — a scientific survey asking people how much life had improved over the decade in which GDP doubled, and to give the main reasons for their answer. History had given us a unique experiment, and we should take advantage of it and learn something. My proposal was turned down, I think because the World Bank, the prime pusher of growth, was worried that it might learn an “inconvenient truth.” In 1992 the burden of proof was on me. Now, with Lawn and Clarke to appeal to I think the burden of proof will be on the World Bank.

The study I had proposed to the World Bank was to look at what is now called “self-evaluated happiness,” whereas Lawn and Clarke look at a more objective index of welfare, the GPI. Studies of self-evaluated happiness have now come into fashion, and generally support the same conclusions that Lawn and Clarke reach on the basis of more objective data. The finding is that self-evaluated happiness rises with absolute income up to a threshold beyond which increases in absolute income do not increase happiness. The emphasis in these studies is on psychological phenomena of satiation and relative position with its self-canceling effects, rather than biophysical phenomena of rising external costs imposed by a full world. The two approaches are not in conflict but in fact are quite complementary. The fact that they yield broadly similar conclusions regarding the futility of growth to increase welfare beyond a threshold is a devastatingly important point worthy of intense study and reflection. But beware; we may have to conclude that growth is becoming uneconomic and that we need a new principle and new policies by which to organize our separate national commonwealths and their international federation. That is a very big problem. Thanks to Lawn and Clarke for suggesting many specific policies rooted in a clear analysis of that very big problem.