Posts

Eight Fallacies about Growth

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyOne thing the Democrats and Republicans will agree on in the current U.S. presidential campaign is that economic growth is our number one goal and is the basic solution to all problems. The idea that growth could conceivably cost more than it is worth at the margin, and therefore become uneconomic in the literal sense, will not be considered. But, aside from political denial, why do people (frequently economists) not understand that continuous growth of the economy (measured by either real GDP or resource throughput) could in theory, and probably has in fact, become uneconomic? What is it that confuses them?

Here are eight likely reasons for confusion.

1. One can nearly always find something whose growth would be both desirable and possible. For example, we need more bicycles and can produce more bicycles. More bicycles means growth. Therefore growth is both good and possible. QED.

However, this confuses aggregate growth with reallocation. Aggregate growth refers to growth in everything: bicycles, cars, houses, ships, cell phones, and so on. Aggregate growth is growth in scale of the economy, the size of real GDP, which is a value-based index of aggregate production and consequently of the total resource throughput required by that production. In the simplest case of aggregate growth everything produced goes up by the same percentage. Reallocation, by contrast, means that some things go up while others go down, the freed-up resources from the latter are transferred to the former. The fact that reallocation remains possible and desirable does not mean that aggregate growth is possible and desirable. The fact that you can reallocate the weight in a boat more efficiently does not mean that there is no Plimsoll Line. Too much weight will sink a boat even if it is optimally allocated. Efficient reallocation is good; the problem is aggregate growth.

Reallocation of production away from more resource-intensive goods to less resource-intensive goods (“decoupling”) is possible to some degree and often advocated, but is limited by two basic facts. First, the economy grows as an integrated whole, not as a loose aggregate of independently changeable sectors. A glance at the input-output table of an economy makes it clear that to increase output of any sector requires an increase in all the inputs to that sector from other sectors, and then increases of the inputs to those inputs, etc. Second, in addition to the input-output or supply interdependence of sectors there are demand constraints — people are just not interested in information services unless they first have enough food and shelter. So trying to cut the resource-intensive food and shelter part of GDP to reallocate to less resource-intensive information services in the name of decoupling GDP from resources, will simply result in a shortage of food and shelter, and a glut of information services.

Aggregate growth was no problem back when the world was relatively empty. But now the world is full, and aggregate growth likely costs more than it is worth, even though more bicycles (and less of something else) might still be possible and desirable. That should not be too hard to understand.

2. Another confusion is to argue that since GDP is measured in value terms, it is therefore not subject to physical limits. This is another argument given for easy “decoupling” of GDP from resource throughput. But growth refers to real GDP, which eliminates price level changes. Real GDP is a value-based index of aggregate quantitative change in real physical production. It is the best index we have of total resource throughput. The unit of measure of real GDP is not dollars, but rather “dollar’s worth.” A dollar’s worth of gasoline is a physical quantity, currently about one-fourth of a gallon. The annual aggregate of all such dollar’s worth amounts of all final commodities is real GDP, and even though not expressible in a simple physical unit, it remains a physical aggregate and subject to physical limits. The price level and nominal GDP might grow forever (inflation), but not real GDP, and the latter is the accepted measure of aggregate growth. Most people can grasp this, and do not conceive of real GDP as trillions of dollar bills, or as ethereal, abstract, psychic, aggregated utility.

3. A more subtle confusion results from looking at past totals rather than present margins. Just look at the huge net benefits of past growth! How can anyone oppose growth when it has led to such enormous benefits? Well, there is a good reason: the net benefits of past growth reach a maximum precisely at the point where the rising marginal costs of growth equal the declining marginal benefits — that is to say, at precisely the point at which further growth ceases to be economic and becomes uneconomic! Before that point wealth grew faster than illth; beyond that point illth grows faster than wealth, making us poorer, not richer. No one is against being richer. No one denies that growth used to make us richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?

To understand the question requires that we recognize that real GDP has a cost, that illth is a negative joint product with wealth. Examples of illth are everywhere and include: nuclear wastes, climate change from excess carbon in the atmosphere, biodiversity loss, depleted mines, eroded topsoil, dry wells and rivers, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, gyres of plastic trash in the oceans, the ozone hole, exhausting and dangerous labor, and the exploding un-repayable debt from trying to push growth in the symbolic financial sector beyond what is possible in the real sector. Since no one buys these annually produced bads (that accumulate into illth), they have no market prices, and since their implicit negative shadow values are hard to estimate in a way comparable to positive market prices, they are usually ignored, or mentioned and quickly forgotten.

The logic of maximization embodied in equating marginal cost with marginal benefit requires a moment’s thought for the average citizen to understand clearly, but surely it is familiar to anyone who has taken Econ 101.

4. Even if it is theoretically possible that the marginal cost of growth has become greater than the marginal benefit, there is no empirical evidence that this is so.  On the contrary, there is plenty of empirical evidence for anyone who has not been anesthetized by the official party line of Madison Avenue and Wall Street. As for empirical evidence of the statistical type, there are two independent sources that give the same basic answer. First are the objective measures that separate GDP sub-accounts into costs and benefits and then subtract the costs from GDP to approximate net benefits of growth. The Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) and its later modifications into the General Progress Indicator (GPI) both indicate that, for the US and some other wealthy countries, GDP and GPI were positively correlated up until around 1980, after which GPI leveled off and GDP continued to rise. In other words, increasing throughput as measured by real GDP no longer increased welfare as measured by GPI. A similar disconnect is confirmed using the different measure of self-evaluated happiness. Self-reported happiness increases with per capita GDP up to a level of around $20,000 per year, and then stops rising. The interpretation given is that while absolute real income is important for happiness up to some sufficient point, beyond that point happiness is overwhelmingly a function of the quality of relationships by which our very identity is constituted. Friendships, marriage and family, social stability, trust, fairness, etc. — not per capita GDP — are the overwhelming determinants of happiness at the present margin, especially in high-income countries. If we sacrifice friendships, social stability, family time, environmental services, and trust for the sake of labor mobility, a second job, and quarterly financial returns, we often reduce happiness while increasing GDP. Relative income gains may still increase individual happiness even when increases in absolute income no longer do, but aggregate growth is powerless to increase everyone’s relative income because we cannot all be above average. Beyond some sufficiency, growth in GDP no longer increases either self-evaluated happiness or measured economic welfare, but it continues to increase costs of depletion, pollution, congestion, stress, etc. Why do most economists resist the very idea that we might have reached this point? Why do they resist measuring the costs of growth, and then claim that “there is no empirical evidence” for what is common experience? Read on.

5. Many believe that the way we measure GDP automatically makes its growth a trustworthy guide to economic policy.  To be counted in GDP, there must be a market transaction, and that implies a willing buyer and seller, neither of whom would have made the transaction if it did not make them better off in their own judgment. Ergo, growth in GDP must be good or it would not have happened. The problem here is that there are many third parties who are affected by many transactions, but did not agree to them. These external costs (or sometimes benefits) are not counted in GDP. Who are these third parties? The public in general, but more specifically the poor who lack the money to express their preferences in the market, future generations who cannot bid in present markets, and other species who have no influence on markets at all.

In addition, GDP, the largest component of which is National Income, counts consumption of natural capital as income. Counting capital consumption as income is the cardinal sin of accounting. Cut down the entire forest this year and sell it, and the entire amount is treated as this year’s income. Pump all the petroleum and sell it, and add that to this year’s income. But income in economics is by definition the maximum amount that a community can produce and consume this year, and still be able to produce and consume the same amount next year. In other words income is the maximum consumption that still leaves intact the capacity to produce the same amount next year. Only the sustainable yield of forests, fisheries, croplands, and livestock herds is this year’s income — the rest is capital needed to reproduce the same yield next year. Consuming capital means reduced production and consumption in the future. Income is by definition sustainable; capital consumption is not. The whole historical reason for income accounting is to avoid impoverishment by inadvertent consumption of capital. By contrast our national accounting tends to encourage capital consumption (at least consumption of natural capital), first by counting it in GDP, and then claiming that whatever increases GDP is good!

As already noted we fail to subtract negative by-products (external costs) from GDP on the grounds that they have no market price since obviously no one wants to buy bads. But people do buy anti-bads, and we count those expenditures. For example, the costs of pollution (a bad) are not subtracted, but the expenditures on pollution clean-up (an anti-bad) are added. This is asymmetric accounting — adding anti-bads without having subtracted the bads that made the anti-bads necessary in the first place. The more bads, the more anti-bads, and the greater is GDP — wheel spinning registered as forward motion.

There are other problems with GDP but these should be enough to refute the mistaken idea that if something is not a net benefit it would not have been counted in GDP, so therefore GDP growth must always be good. Lots of people have for a long time been making these criticisms of GDP. They have not been refuted — just ignored!

6. Knowledge is the ultimate resource and since knowledge growth is infinite it can fuel economic growth without limit.  I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical resources to the extent possible, and consequently advocate both taxes to make resources expensive and patent reform to make knowledge cheap. But if I am hungry I want real food on the plate, not the knowledge of a thousand recipes on the Internet. Furthermore, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Ignorance is renewable mainly because ignorant babies replace learned elders every generation. In addition, vast amounts of recorded knowledge are destroyed by fires, floods, and bookworms. Modern digital storage does not seem to be immune to these teeth of time, or to that new bookworm, the computer virus. To be effective in the world, knowledge must exist in someone’s mind (not just in the library or on the Internet) — otherwise it is inert. And even when knowledge increases, it does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or cancelled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth.

New knowledge must always be something of a surprise — if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already, and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy — frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gases was recently new knowledge, as was discovery of the ozone hole. How can one appeal to new knowledge as the panacea when the content of new knowledge must of necessity be a surprise? Of course we may get lucky with new knowledge, but should we borrow against that uncertainty? Why not count the chickens after they hatch?

7. Without growth we are condemned to unemployment. The Full Employment Act of 1946 declared full employment to be a major goal of U.S. policy. Economic growth was then seen as the means to attain full employment. Today that relation has been inverted — economic growth has become the end.  If the means to attain that end — automation, off-shoring, excessive immigration — result in unemployment, well that is the price “we” just have to pay for the supreme goal of growth. If we really want full employment we must reverse this inversion of ends and means. We can serve the goal of full employment by restricting automation, off-shoring, and immigration work permits to periods of true domestic labor shortage as indicated by high and rising wages. Real wages have been falling for decades, yet our corporations, hungry for cheaper labor, keep bleating about a labor shortage. They mean a shortage of cheap labor in the service of growing profits. Actually a labor shortage in a capitalist economy with 80% of the population earning wages is not a bad thing. How else will wages and standard of living for that 80% ever increase unless there is a shortage of labor? What the corporations really want is a surplus of labor, and falling wages. With surplus labor wages cannot rise and therefore all the gains from productivity increases will go to profit, not wages. Hence the elitist support for uncontrolled automation, off-shoring, and immigration.

8. We live in a globalized economy and have no choice but to compete in the global growth race. Not so! Globalization was a policy choice of our elites, not an imposed necessity. Free trade agreements had to be negotiated. Who negotiated and signed the treaties? Who has pushed for free capital mobility and signed on to the World Trade Organization? Who wants to enforce trade-related intellectual property rights with trade sanctions? The Bretton Woods system was a major achievement aimed at facilitating international trade after WWII. It fostered trade for mutual advantage among separate countries. Free capital mobility and global integration were not part of the deal. That came with the WTO and the effective abandonment by the World Bank and IMF of their Bretton Woods charter. Globalization is the engineered integration of many formerly relatively independent national economies into a single tightly bound global economy organized around absolute, not comparative, advantage. Once a country has been sold on free trade and free capital mobility it has effectively been integrated into the global economy and is no longer free not to specialize and trade. Yet all of the theorems in economics about the gains from trade assume that trade is voluntary. How can trade be voluntary if you are so specialized as to be no longer free not to trade? Countries can no longer account for social and environmental costs and internalize them in their prices unless all other countries do so, and to the same degree. To integrate the global omelet you must disintegrate the national eggs. While nations have many sins to atone for, they remain the main locus of community and policy-making authority. It will not do to disintegrate them in the name of abstract “globalism,” even though we certainly require some global federation of national communities. But when nations disintegrate there will be nothing left to federate in the interest of legitimately global purposes. “Globalization” (national disintegration) was an actively pursued policy, not an inertial force of nature. It was done to increase the power and growth of transnational corporations by moving them out from under the authority of nation states and into a non-existent “global community.” It can be undone, as is currently being contemplated by some in the European Union, often heralded as the forerunner of more inclusive globalization.

If the growth boosters will make a sincere effort to overcome these eight fallacies, then maybe we can have a productive dialogue about whether or not what used to be economic growth has now become uneconomic growth, and what to do about it. Until these eight fallacies have been addressed, it is probably not worth extending the list. It is too much to hope that the issue of uneconomic growth will make it into the 2012 election, but maybe 2016, or 2020, …or sometime? One can hope. But hope must embrace not just a better understanding regarding these confusions, but also more love and care for our fellow humans, and for all of Creation. Our decision-making elites may tacitly understand that growth has become uneconomic. But they have also figured out how to keep the dwindling extra benefits for themselves, while “sharing” the exploding extra costs with the poor, the future, and other species. The elite-owned media, the corporate-funded think tanks, the kept economists of high academia, and the World Bank — not to mention GoldSacks and Wall Street — all sing hymns to growth in harmony with class interest and greed. The public is bamboozled by technical obfuscation, and by the false promise that, thanks to growth, they too will one day be rich. Intellectual confusion is real, but moral corruption fogs the discussion even more.

Game Changer: National Wildlife Federation Adopts a Resolution on GDP

Brian Czech PhotoAmong the world’s biggest environmental organizations, there is now a clear leader of the sustainability pack. The National Wildlife Federation has boldly gone where the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, and so many others have feared to tread. As the first big NGO in the 21st century to raise awareness of the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection, NWF has earned the admiration of a burgeoning group of citizens.

Which burgeoning group is that, you ask? Let’s call it the Common Sense Club. They’re tired of the propaganda that we can have our environmental cake and eat it too. The Common Sense Club knows there’s a limit to economic growth, and that growth has been causing more problems than it solves. No, they’re not for high unemployment or poverty – of course not! – but they’re also not for imperiling our grandkids by ruining the environment. The Common Sense Club realizes that, if we care about wildlife, the grandkids, national security, and international stability, we have to strike a balance between the size of the economy and the environment that sustains it.

At CASSE, we’re more aware by the day of how rapidly the Common Sense Club is growing and how diverse it’s becoming. Take for example the five most recent signatories of the CASSE position on economic growth: a Croatian air traffic controller, an Indian economics professor, a Swedish artist, an American banker (that’s right, a banker), and a Dutch computer scientist. The group of steady state signatories is ranging far beyond the original bunch of ecologists and economists who kicked it off seven years ago (although I like to think the original bunch had some common sense too).

But back to the NWF and its resolution on GDP growth; now that’s a real game changer. For the sake of ecological and economic sustainability, the news could hardly be bigger. We finally have a significant counterweight to the neoclassical nonsense that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” To put this counterweight in political perspective, the NWF, at 4.4 million strong, has more members than the National Rifle Association. It’s a centrist organization with a rock-solid history.

Why bring the NRA into this? It makes for an interesting contrast because, like the NRA, NWF counts a lot of hunters, fisherman, and general conservationists among its membership. Indeed there is substantial overlap in membership. But NWF also includes a great number of wildlife aficionados who have never pulled the trigger of more than a water pistol. It’s the rare, well-rounded organization that unites citizens far and wide over a mission everyone supports: wildlife conservation.

And wildlife conservation – indeed environmental protection in general – is not a supportable mission as long as the overriding goal is economic growth. That’s why, since the late 1990’s, dedicated ecologists and ecological economists have been toiling in the trenches of professional, scientific societies, engaging these societies in the subject of economic growth. They’ve been working toward days like April 15, when NWF adopted its resolution.

In these scientific societies, efforts have focused on the development of papers and policy statements explaining the trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection. For example, in 2003 The Wildlife Society published a technical review explaining the “fundamental conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation.” In 2004 the Society for Conservation Biology (North America Section) took the position that “There is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation based on the ecological principle of competitive exclusion.” In 2007, the American Society of Mammalogists adopted a resolution noting the “fundamental conflict between economic growth and the conservation of ecosystems, mammalian populations, and species.” Note that the trade-off is often described as a “fundamental conflict” because it ultimately boils down to core principles of physics and ecology.

The scientific societies have addressed the issue of economic growth in such venues as peer-reviewed papers, special sections, and series in journals; symposia, plenary talks, and workshops; working groups and committees; editorials and debates, etc. These academic studies and discussions are a critical phase in a broad movement to build awareness, as illustrated below.

Basic Vision of Awareness-Building

Meanwhile the NGOs (such as NWF) need a sound, scientific foundation to build upon. Otherwise any talk of trade-offs with economic growth can be blown away in the political winds. The collection of papers, proceedings, position statements and policy reviews now constitutes that foundation.

Of course the process of awareness-building isn’t quite as simple as building a pyramid from the bottom up. It is also an iterative process in which NWF’s resolution will empower yet another scientific society to take a position on economic growth, thereby firming up the foundation. The strengthened foundation may then provide the support for the next big NGO (perhaps the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth, or Sierra Club?) to weigh in. The NGOs are key because, unlike the scientific societies, they have the resources (staff, magazines, mailing lists, etc.) to educate the masses, beginning with their own substantial memberships.

Meanwhile, the general public (third level in the diagram) is being populated by the Common Sense Club. As the Common Sense Club grows, NGOs such as NWF can feel more comfortable telling it like it is about the perils of economic growth. They won’t be left out in the cold, and will in fact attract many new members.

It should also be noted that the NWF didn’t use the “fundamental conflict” language in its resolution. Rather, they simply pointed out that GDP is a poor indicator of welfare because it doesn’t account for many important goals, such as wildlife conservation. But when we recognize that GDP is THE indicator of economic growth, it’s easy to get the point: there is a trade-off between economic growth and wildlife conservation.

Like CASSE, NWF would like to see indicators other than GDP used to assess human welfare. GDP is like the scale for an obese patient; it’s good for indicating how overweight the economy is becoming. But we need a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope, too, for a broader picture of health. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) are examples of indicators that help us form a broader perspective of human welfare.

It should also be noted that, in the diagram above, the politicians at the top aren’t necessarily essential for a sustainable outcome. If the scientific societies, NGOs, and general public are adequately aware of the trade-offs between economic growth and environmental protection (and so much else), a steady state economy can result from the “demand side.” In other words, less consumption and more family planning can stabilize the economy regardless of how much the policy makers try to “stimulate” the economy. Ideally, though, policy makers will serve the public that elects them, and gradually set those fiscal and monetary policy levers back toward a sustainable steady state.

Normally, I reserve my own charitable contributions for a few choice NGOs, most notably CASSE and the irresistible Smile Train. But this year I’m joining NWF, and I hope you do too. They earned it!

Growth of GDP and Discontent in Egypt and Tunisia

by Eric Zencey

The regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia have been hailed as victories for democracy, as proof of the liberalizing power of social networking media, as testimony to the power of nonviolent political action. All of that they may indeed be; but the events in Egypt and Tunisia also illustrate a major defect in our economic thinking, one from which we should draw a very different and much more cautionary conclusion.

The flaw in standard economic theory that’s behind the Middle East’s winter of discontent is the acceptance of gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of citizen well-being. A recent poll by the Gallup organization, reported in early February, found that despite significant gains in per capita GDP in both Egypt and Tunisia, the level of well-being of their citizens has been falling over the past decade. This decline in well-being certainly played a role in the unrest that put citizens in the streets, challenging their governments.

In Egypt, between 2005 and 2010 per capita GDP rose from $4,762 per year to $6,367. In Tunisia it rose from $7,182 to $9,489. But both countries saw a significant decline in the percentage of the population that is classified as thriving according to a standard, well established measure.

That measure is the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, developed by a researcher named Hadley Cantril. It’s a survey research tool, and asks respondents to answer a few simple questions:

Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to ten at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you are standing at the present time? On which step of the ladder do you think you will stand about five years from now?

To rank as “thriving,” respondents have to have positive views of their current place on the ladder (seven or higher) and positive expectations about the future (eight or higher). Below that, respondents are ranked as “struggling”—their “ladder-future” expectation is lower than the present, or both values fall below the thriving range. Below struggling is “suffering,” people who report their place on the ladder at four or below.

The Cantril Scale correlates with objective markers of well-being. Thrivers have fewer health problems and fewer sick days, while reporting less worry, stress, and anxiety and more enjoyment, happiness, and respect. Those in the struggling category report more daily stress and worry about money than the “thriving” respondents, and more than double the amount of sick days. Those in the “suffering” category are more likely to report that they lack basics like food and shelter, more likely to report physical pain, and more likely to experience higher levels of stress, worry, sadness, and anger. They have more than double the rate of diseases compared to “thriving” respondents.

In both countries, as GDP rose steadily, the number of citizens categorized as “thriving” fell. In Egypt, 29% of people reported themselves as thriving in 2005, but that number fell to just 11% in 2010. In Tunisia, Cantril Scale data are unavailable prior to 2008, when 24% of the population could be classified as thriving; that number fell to 14% in 2010, a 40% decline.

The nonviolent revolutions in both countries may have been motivated less by abstract commitment to democratic freedom than by widespread experience of a declining standard of living and increased economic insecurity, even in the face of rising GDP. Two factors contribute to this result that seems paradoxical within the standard model of economic thinking: (1) increasing inequality in income and (2) increasing food prices.

Thanks in part to the Aswan Dam, which interrupted the regular cycle by which Nile delta farmlands were re-nourished by annual flooding, Egypt has been the single largest importer of grain in the world. When Russia announced an embargo on grain exports (the result of unprecedented, climate-change-driven weather that scorched into ruin nearly half of Russia’s usual annual harvest), the price of food shot up. Before the embargo, the average Egyptian family spent 38% of its income on food (compared to 7% in the U.S.). Most simply couldn’t afford the higher prices, and hunger and food insecurity spread through the middle class. Perversely, GDP counted higher food prices as a positive contribution to well-being.

Because of that basic flaw, a rising GDP did not mean a rising standard of living. And even if GDP were a more accurate measure of material well-being, it would still be mathematically possible for a very large number of people to become worse off economically as per capita GDP rises.  This situation could occur if there is growing income inequality (i.e., the benefits of increasing GDP aren’t widely shared). In Egypt and Tunisia, that mathematical possibility became an economic fact—and a politically charged social condition.

Declining standards of well-being are politically destabilizing, and lead naturally enough to sweeping support for regime change. In Egypt and Tunisia the regimes happened to be despotic, and the call for change came as a commitment to democracy, an end to corruption, and demands for civil liberties. But within democracies, declining standards of living can have the opposite effect. Open and institutionalized systems of regime change—voting—will absorb the discontent for a time, but if the decline lasts too long, and can’t be blamed on a particular party in power, pressure grows for stepping outside established parties for new, radical, revolutionary approaches. Democratic forms are no proof against a slide into repressive forms. In Germany in the 1930’s, a declining standard of living contributed to the rise of the Nazi party; Hitler was democratically elected to the office of Chancellor (and then proceeded to establish himself as Fuehrer).

As America’s perpetual-growth economy faces the reality of ecological limits, as climate change imposes costs and decreased well-being on us, as energy and other resource prices increase, we face the prospect of a widespread decline in our standard of living. Americans coming of age today are among the first generation who can’t be confident that they will be better off than their parents; by one widely used measure of well-being (the genuine progress indicator, which deducts loss of ecosystem services and other “disamenities” from the national accounts), the American standard of living has flatlined since the 1970s, despite continued strong growth in GDP.

Thus the cautionary lessons from Egypt and Tunisia. GDP is a measure of the commotion of money in an economy, not a measure of delivered well-being. If sustained or rising well-being is what is economically and politically desirable, we should measure it directly, instead of counting on GDP to do the job. And if we accept the idea of popular sovereignty—that governments rule with “the just consent of the governed,” as Jefferson put it in our Declaration of Independence—we must recognize that as the middle class goes, so goes the legitimacy of the regime in power. No system of government—despotic or democratic—fares well when the majority of its citizens experiences a declining standard of living.

When increasing the standard of living depends on continual expansion of the economy’s ecological footprint, that increase must at some point come to an end. The examples of Egypt and Tunisia invite us to ask: what then?

Eric Zencey is a visiting associate professor of historical and political studies at Empire State College of the State University of New York, and an affiliate of the Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. He is the author of the forthcoming The Other Road to Serfdom: Essays in Sustainable Democracy.

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.