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A New Economy Will Help Save Rivers and Fisheries

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderGlobalization and cheater economics have been destroying the world’s great rivers and their fisheries. Most people know about the devastation of rivers from water pollution, but not as many are aware of the significant impacts of big dams, river engineering, and real estate development in and on top of rivers. These activities can seriously damage fisheries and impair the natural functions of riverine ecosystems. A true-cost, steady state economy would, for the most part, avoid the continuing tragic dismantlement of rivers and fisheries.

The following three activities are causing major harm to rivers and fisheries, but would not occur in a true-cost, steady state economy.

Coal Ash Cesspools

The mining and burning of coal have come under enormous scrutiny because of the air pollution, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions they cause. There is another major but relatively unknown water pollution threat from coal burning, in addition to the smoke plume at the power plant–coal fly ash pits. After coal is burned at a power plant to generate electricity, the ash residue (which can contain serious toxins such as mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc.) is dumped into unlined ponds or pits near the power plant. These toxic cesspools, as they should be called, cause contamination of surface water, well water, and adjacent lands.

In February of 2014, one of Duke Energy’s dozens of coal ash cesspools malfunctioned, sending toxic sludge 70 miles down the Dan River in North Carolina and into Virginia. Six years earlier (December, 2008) a coal ash cesspool operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority broke, sending even greater quantities of toxic water and sludge into a tributary of the Tennessee River.

Independent testing of coal ash cesspools reveals a Pandora’s Box of toxins, findings that generally contradict assertions by utilities that things are okay. This growing issue amounts to a deadly in-your-face utility circus, flouting the law and flaunting the political power of utilities over state legislatures.

Utilities are doing what would never be allowed in a true-cost economy: they are externalizing the costs of dealing with fly ash from burning coal. Were they to include the health and pollution damages, the costs of coal would skyrocket and its use would be rapidly phased out.

Giant Dams

The economic evidence over the last 70 years against large dams has been assembled by economists at Oxford University (UK). They found, on average, large dam projects in developing countries exceed their construction cost budget by 90%, and often take over 10 years to complete.

Tonle Sap Lake Fish - Shankar S

Fish from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, one of the most fertile inland fisheries in the world, are facing threats from dams in the nearby Mekong River. Photo Credit: Shankar S

In addition, most mega-hydrodams omit genuine cost-accounting for their sometimes enormous adverse environmental and social impacts. For example, the public tends to think of hydroelectric power as a clean source of energy, not realizing that dams may be responsible for over 20% of the human-caused methane emissions. (Methane is a 20-30 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) In Asia, the Mekong River contains the world’s largest inland fishery and provides livelihood for an estimated 60 million people. Large dams are planned across the mainstem of the river that would destroy the fish migrations of more than 200 species. One proponent of these dams said, “don’t worry, the people can just buy their fish from a fish farm once the river fish disappear.”

Again, a true-cost economy does not condone the blatant failure to include all the costs. See my February 2015 blog “Crossroads on Global Infrastructure” for more details on large infrastructure projects.

River Engineering and Response to Weather Disasters

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey received about $60 billion in relief and assistance. Instead of avoiding more development in top hazard zones, a burst of building permit applications has been made for more activities in and on top of the Hudson River, all in a number one hazard zone. A lot of this real estate development on piers would harm crucial habitat for over 100 fish, plant, and animal species. The proposals include such reckless propositions as an amphitheater and trees on an artificial “island” in the river. This is not free-enterprise development, but subsidized activity that eventually will necessitate a taxpayer “emergency relief bill” following the next hurricane or superstorm. We will never reach a sustainable economy if we have to keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars globally, bailing out new real estate development where it never should have been.

Real estate developments in and on top of rivers, armor-plating shorelines to enable more construction right on the coast, proliferating coal ash cesspools, and building mega-dams all have something in common. They can damage fishery habitats, disrupt fish migrations, and impair the healthy functioning of rivers in the US and worldwide. A true-cost economy recognizes that healthy rivers and flourishing fisheries are vital economic assets for cities and towns, and has principles that prevent their evisceration. The current globalized economy does not.

Open Borders and the Tragedy of Open Access Commons

by Herman Daly

Herman Daly“Open borders” refers to a policy of unlimited or free immigration. I argue here that it is a bad policy. If you are poor and your country provides no social safety net, you move to one that does. If you are rich and your country makes you pay your taxes, you move (or at least move your money) to one that doesn’t. Thus safety nets, and public goods in general, disappear as they become both overloaded and underfunded. That is the “world without borders,” and without community. That is the tragedy of open access commons.

Some will think that I am attacking a straw man, because, they will say, no sensible person really advocates open borders. They simply advocate, it will be said, “more generous levels of immigration, and a reasonable amnesty for existing illegal immigrants.” I agree that some form of strictly conditional amnesty is indeed necessary as the lesser evil, given the impasse created by past non-enforcement of our immigration laws. Deporting 12 million long-settled residents is too drastic and would create more injustices than it would rectify. But unless we enforce immigration laws in the future there will soon be need for another amnesty (the first, often forgotten, was in 1986), and then another — a de facto open-borders policy. Nevertheless, the policy of open borders should be fairly discussed, not only because some people explicitly advocate it, but also because many others implicitly accept it by virtue of their unwillingness to face the alternative.

Immigration is a divisive issue. A good unifying point to begin a discussion is to recognize that every country in the world has a policy of limiting immigration. Emigration is often considered a human right, but immigration requires the permission of the receiving country. Some countries allow many legal immigrants. Others allow few. As the World Bank reported in its Global Bilateral Migration Database:

The United States remains the most important migrant destination in the world, home to one fifth of the world’s migrants and the top destination for migrants from no less than sixty sending countries. Migration to Western Europe remains largely from elsewhere in Europe.

There are also arguments about the emigration side of open borders — even if emigration is a human right, is it unconditional? Might “brain-drain” emigrants have some obligation to contribute something to the community that educated and invested in them, before they emigrate to greener pastures?

Immigrants are people, and deserve to be well treated; immigration is a policy, and deserves reasoned discussion in the public interest. It seems that neither expectation is fulfilled, perhaps partly because the world has moved from largely empty to quite full in only one lifetime. What could work in the world of two billion people into which I was born, no longer works in today’s world of seven billion. In addition to people, the exploding populations of cars, buildings, livestock, ships, refrigerators, cell phones, and even corn stalks and soybean plants, contribute to a world full of “dissipative structures” that, like human bodies, require not only space but also a metabolic flow of natural resources beginning with depletion and ending with pollution. This growing entropic throughput already exceeds ecological capacities of regeneration and absorption, degrading the life-support capacity of the ecosphere.

The US is indeed a “country of immigrants,” although for American Indians this frequent refrain reflects a less positive historical experience than it does for European settlers. Nor does the term resonate positively with those African Americans whose recent ancestors were brought here as involuntary immigrants. Many Americans, including me, think that heirs of slavery deserve priority in the US job market (including job training) over new immigrants, especially illegal immigrants. Likewise for the many Americans of all races living in poverty. Some other Americans, unfortunately, seem to feel that if we can’t have slaves, then the next best thing is abundant cheap labor, guaranteed by unemployment.

We have in the US a strong cheap-labor lobby that uses immigration (especially illegal immigration) to force down wages and break labor unions, as well as weaken labor safety standards. This is less the fault of the immigrants than of our own elite employing class and pandering politicians. The immigration issue in the US is largely an internal class battle between labor and capital, with immigrants as pawns in the conflict. Class division is more basic than the racial and ethnic divide in current US immigration politics, although the latter is not absent. Progressives in the US, with their admirable historical focus on racial justice, have been slow to see the increasing dominance of the class issue in immigration. The Wall Street Journal, the Chamber of Commerce, and big corporations in general, do not mind seeing the class question submerged by racial and ethnic politics favoring easy immigration as a cheap-labor supplement to off-shoring. It feeds the myth that we are a classless society, even as it contributes to increasing income inequality. Also, given the closeness of recent elections, a bit of ethnic pandering can be politically decisive.

The US is also a country of law, or at least strives to be. Illegal immigration falls outside the rule of law, and renders moot all democratic policy deliberations about balancing interests for the common good. It is hardly democratic to refuse to enforce democratically enacted laws, even though difficult individual cases arise, as with any law. Humane provisions for difficult cases must be worked out, e.g., children brought here illegally by their parents twenty years ago. We have judges to deal with difficult cases, as well as statutes of limitation regarding the time period within which certain laws must be enforced, and this principle could be applied to immigration laws.

Which democratically enacted laws will the open-borders lobby not enforce next? How about laws against financial fraud? We have apparently already quit enforcing those, partly abetted by globalization and foreign tax havens as well as too big to fail or jail banks. Acceptance of illegal immigration is only one part of the broader trend toward impunity, and while impunity for banksters is arguably worse than for illegal immigrants and their employers, the latter still plays a part in undermining the general respect for law.

Map of Bhutan

What would an “open borders” policy mean for Bhutan, sandwiched between the world’s two most populous nations?

Surely our immigration laws could be improved. Indeed, the 1995 US Commission on Immigration Reform, chaired by the late Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, made a good start, but was ignored for reasons already suggested. Her commission called for lower legal immigration quotas, stricter family reunification criteria, and enhanced border control, as well as stricter sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants. The last embraced the caveat that ethnic profiling would likely result without a secure national identification system, since employers are not able to adjudicate false documents. A secure identification system would of course make it easier to identify illegal immigrants and is often opposed by open-borders advocates and libertarians. The present Congress should build on the good work of the Jordan Commission, but they seem to have forgotten it.

Would open borders be good for Japan, or Germany, or Greece, or for an independent Catalonia, if that should come about? Do any political parties in member countries advocate open borders for the European Union with respect to the rest of the world? Should the areas of the Amazon reserved for indigenous people be open to free immigration? Should Bhutan, bordered by the world’s two most populous countries and trying to preserve its culture and ecosystems, declare a policy of open borders?

In developed countries immigration boosters are especially interested in opening borders to young workers to help cover social security shortfalls resulting from the older age structure caused by slower natural population growth. The cheap-labor lobby is joined by the cheap-retirement lobby. Apparently the immigrants are expected to die or go home as soon as they reach retirement age and would start receiving rather than paying into social security. Also, while working they are expected to boost fertility and population growth sufficiently to postpone the necessity of raising the retirement age or lowering benefits. Population growth is expected, indeed required, to continue indefinitely.

In addition to the cheap-labor and cheap-retirement lobbies, advocacy of open borders comes both from the politically correct faction of left-wing economists, and from the libertarian faction of right-wing economists. The former consider any limits on total number of immigrants as “thinly disguised racism.” All evil is reduced to racism, often “in disguise.” The libertarian economists label any restriction on immigration as a “market distortion,” their synonym for regulation. We already have open borders for capital (as well as goods), so that open borders for labor would complete the global integration agenda — deregulation taken to the limit. This is not “free trade” or reasonable recognition of interdependence among many separate trading economies, as embodied in the 1945 Bretton Woods Treaty. Rather it is a single global economy tightly integrated on the principle of absolute, not comparative, advantage. It is being imposed top-down by transnational corporations via the undemocratic World Trade Organization.

Net immigration is the overwhelming cause of US population growth. How big should the US population be? We are currently the third most populous country in the world. Do we aspire to overtake China and India? What numbers define a “more generous immigration policy,” and exactly who is being generous to whom, and at whose expense? Our elite is being generous to itself at the expense of both the US working class and of immigrants.

Any limitation of the number of new immigrants still requires selectivity and enforcement of immigration laws. It requires saying “no” to many worthy applicants, which is difficult, and is why some humanitarians are tempted to favor open borders. It is easier to pretend that unlimited “economic” growth can support an unlimited population, including immigrants. Never mind that growth in the US has, at the margin, become uneconomic, increasing social and environmental costs faster than benefits. The idea of a steady-state economy goes out the window, and customary growth-mania is reaffirmed.

If the US could just set an example of how a country can live justly and sustainably within its ecological limits (i.e., in a steady-state economy), that would be a splendid contribution to the rest of the world. We are far from setting such an example — indeed we are not even trying.

The Daly-Correa Tax: Background and Explanation

by Herman Daly

Under the heading, “Oil nations asked to consider carbon tax on exports,” John Vidal writes in The Guardian:

The Ecuadorean president, Rafael Correa, proposed a carbon tax at a summit of Arab and South American countries in October in Peru which included the heads of state and energy ministers of nine of Opec’s 12 countries. The Guardian understands the proposal was taken seriously and not dismissed out of hand. The idea was first mooted in 2001 by former World Bank senior economist Herman Daly — leading it to be dubbed the “Daly-Correa tax” — and will be further discussed by Opec countries at the UN climate talks which open on Monday in Doha.

Whether or not it will be discussed at Doha, I think it is worthwhile to explain the idea as it was presented to an OPEC Conference in Vienna in 2001. It elicited little interest on that occasion, but in 2007 was in large part adopted by President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, after being presented to him and his minister of planning, Fander Falconi, by ecological economist Professor Joan Martinez-Alier. Below is the relevant part of my speech at the OPEC conference.*

How might OPEC fit into the emerging vision of sustainable development? Permit me to speculate.

Sources of petroleum throughput derive from private or public (national) property; sinks are in an open access regime and treated as a free good. Therefore, rents are collected on source scarcity, but not on sink scarcity. Different countries or jurisdictions collect scarcity rents in different ways. In the U.S., for example, Alaska has a social collection and sharing of source rents, institutionalized in the Alaska Permanent Fund whose annual earnings are distributed equally to all citizens of Alaska. Other states in the U.S. allow private ownership of sources and private appropriation of source rents.

New institutions are being designed to take the sink function out of the open access regime and recognize its scarcity (Kyoto). Tradable rights to emit carbon dioxide, requiring first the collective fixing of scale and distribution of total emission rights, are actively being discussed. Ownership of the new scarce asset (emission rights) could be distributed in the first instance to the state, which would then redistribute the asset by gift or auctioned lease.

Ideally sink capacity would be defined as a separate asset with its own market. This would require a big change in institutions. Assuming it were done, the source and sink markets for petroleum throughput, though separate, would be highly interdependent. Sink limits would certainly reduce the demand for the source, and vice versa. The distribution of total scarcity rent on the petroleum throughput between source and sink functions would seem to be determined by the relative scarcity of these two functions, even with separate markets. Alternatively, sink scarcity rent could also be captured by a monopoly on the source side, or source scarcity rent could also be captured by a monopoly on the sink side.

To give an analogy, municipal governments, in charging for water, frequently price the source function (water supply) separately from the sink function (sewerage), thus charging different prices for inflow and outflow services related to the same throughput of water. In deciding their water usage, consumers take both prices into account. To them it is as if there were one price for water, the sum of the input and output charges. Likewise the petroleum throughput charge would be the sum of the price of a barrel of crude oil input from the source and the price of carbon dioxide output to the sink from burning a barrel of petroleum. One could consolidate the two charges and levy them at either end, since they are but two ends of the same throughput. This would be a matter of convenience. Since depletion of sources is a much more spatially concentrated activity than pollution of sinks, it would seem that the advantage lies with levying the total source and sink charge at the source end. This is especially so since the sink has traditionally been treated as an open access free good, and changing that requires larger institutional rearrangements than would a sink-based surcharge on the source price. OPEC, given sufficient monopoly power over the source, would be well positioned to function as an efficient collector of sink rents for the world community.

Could it also serve as a global fiduciary for ethically distributing those rents in the interests of sustainable development, especially for the poor? OPEC, assuming it could increase its degree of monopoly of the source, may be in a position to preempt the function of the failing Kyoto accord by incorporating sink rents (and even externalities) into prices at the source end of the petroleum throughput.

Of course OPEC does not have a monopoly on petroleum, much less on fossil fuels. It does not, even indirectly, control non-petroleum sources of carbon dioxide. So it would be easy to overestimate OPEC’s monopoly power, and the scheme suggested here does require an increase in its monopoly power. However, modern mass consumption nations such as the U.S. apparently do not have the discipline to internalize either externalities or scarcity rents into the price of petroleum. Exclusion of developing countries from the Kyoto accord, while understandable on grounds of historical fairness, undermines the prospects for accomplishing the goal of the treaty, namely limitation of global greenhouse gas emissions to a sustainable level. OPEC, assuming it had sufficient monopoly power, might be able to provide this discipline for both North and South.

The South, as well as the North, would have to face the discipline of higher petroleum prices in the name of efficiency, but would, in the name of fairness receive a disproportionate share of the sink rents. There would be a net flow of sink rents from North to South. The size of those rents would depend on OPEC’s degree of monopoly power. The distribution of the rents would be in large part decided by OPEC — a large ethical responsibility which many would be unwilling to cede to OPEC, and which OPEC itself may not want. The obvious alternative to such a global fiduciary authority, however, has already failed. The inability to reach an agreement on international distribution of carbon dioxide emission rights was the rock on which Kyoto foundered. It is hard to see how such an agreement could be reached, either as a first step toward emissions trading, or as a fixed non-tradable allocation.

It is in OPEC’s self-interest to preempt the emergence of a separate market for sink capacity, which could surely lower source demand and prices. While this gives OPEC a motivation, it also calls into question the legitimacy of the motivation as pure monopolistic exploitation. A legitimating compromise, as indicated above, would be for OPEC to behave as a self-interested monopolist on the source side, but as a global fiduciary on the sink side — that is, as an efficient collector and ethical distributor of scarcity rents from pricing the sink function. OPEC countries own petroleum deposits, but not the atmosphere. OPEC has a right to its source rents, but no exclusive right to sink rents. However, it may well have the power to charge and redistribute sink rents as a global fiduciary — exactly what Kyoto wants to do, but lacks the power to do. In addition to effecting this transfer, the expanded role of OPEC as global fiduciary might increase the willingness of other petroleum producers (e.g., Norway) to join OPEC, thus increasing its monopoly power and ability to function as here envisioned. In addition, the fiduciary role might provide ethical reasons for OPEC members to adhere to the cartel, when tempted by short-term profit opportunities to cheat.

Actually the existing OPEC Development Fund is already a step in this direction. Expansion of this fund into a global fiduciary institution for collecting and distributing sink rents, as well as the existing source rent contributions generously made by OPEC countries, is what is envisaged in this suggestion.

Just how total rents are determined and divided between source scarcity and sink scarcity is a technical problem that economists have not tackled because they have not framed the problem this way. Economists have focused on capturing source rents through property rights, and then internalizing the external sink costs of pollution through taxes. Only recently has there emerged a theoretical discussion of property rights in atmospheric sink capacity — whether these should be public or private, the extent to which trade in such rights should be allowed, and so on. As an initial rule of thumb we might assume that, since the sink side is now the more limiting function, it should be accorded half or more of the total throughput scarcity rents. In other words, sink rents should be at least as much as source rents.

Sink rents would go to an expanded OPEC Development Fund dedicated entirely to global sustainable development in poor countries (especially investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency). Source rents would continue to accrue to the country that owns the deposits, and presumably be devoted to national sustainable development. The focus here is on a new public service function for OPEC of efficiently collecting and ethically distributing sink rents in the interest of global sustainable development. Where Kyoto has failed, OPEC might succeed as a stronger power base on which to build the fiduciary role — a power base that sidesteps the inability of nations to agree on the distribution of carbon dioxide emission rights among themselves.

Although any exercise of monopoly power is frequently lamented by economists, the early American economist John Ise had a different view in the case of natural resources: “Preposterous as it may seem at first blush, it is probably true that, even if all the timber in the United States, or all the oil, or gas, or anthracite, were owned by an absolute monopoly, entirely free of public control, prices to consumers would be fixed lower than the long-run interests of the public would justify.” Ise was referring only to the source function. The emerging scarcity of the sinks adds strength to his view. The reasonableness of Ise’s view is enhanced when we remember that for a market to reflect the true price, all interested parties must be allowed to bid. In the case of natural resources the largest interested party, future generations, cannot bid. Neither can our fellow non-human creatures, with whom we also share God’s creation, now and in the future, bid in markets to preserve their habitats. Therefore resource prices are almost certainly going to be too low, and anything that would raise the price, including monopoly, can claim some justification. Nor did Ise believe that the resource monopolist had a right to keep the entire rent, even though the rent should be charged in the interest of the future.

The measurement of the two different rents presents conceptual problems. The source rents are in the nature of user cost — the opportunity cost of non-availability in the future of a non-renewable resource used up today. Assuming that atmospheric absorptive capacity is a renewable resource, the sink rent would be the price of the previously free service when the supply of that service is limited to a sustainable level. If we assume separate markets in both source and sink functions we would theoretically have a market price determined for each function. Since the functions are related as the two ends of the same throughput, the source and sink markets would be quite closely interdependent. The separate markets could be competitive or monopolistic, and differing market power would largely determine the division of total throughput rent between the source and sink functions. For example, if, following a Kyoto agreement, the total supply of sink permits were to be determined by a global monopoly, that monopoly would be in a stronger position to capture total throughput rent on petroleum than would a weak cartel that controls the source. OPEC is surely aware of this.

What might the WTO and the World Bank think of such a suggestion? Since these two institutions are well represented at this conference, this question is more than just rhetorical. So far the WTO and the World Bank have been dedicated to the ideology of globalization — free trade, free capital mobility, and maximum cheapness of resources in the interest of GDP growth for the world as a whole, including mass-consumption societies. In their view maximum competition among oil-exporting countries resulting in a low price for petroleum is the goal. Trickle down from growth for the rich will, it is hoped, someday reach the poor. I suspect the free-trading globalizers consider themselves morally superior to the OPEC monopolists. But which alternative is worse:

  1. Price- and standards-lowering competition in the interest of maximizing mass consumption by oil-importing countries by minimizing the internalization of environmental and social costs with consequent destruction of the atmosphere, and ruination of local self-reliance by a cheap-energy transport subsidy to the forces of global economic integration, or
  2. Monopoly restraints on the global overuse of both a basic resource and a basic life-support service of the environment, with automatic protection of local production and self-reliance provided by higher (full-cost) energy and transport prices, and with sink rents redistributed to the poor?

Monopoly restraint results not only in conservation and reduced pollution, but also in a price incentive to develop new petroleum-saving, and sink-enhancing, technologies, as well as renewable energy substitutes. Unfortunately there would also be an incentive to use non-petroleum fossil fuels such as coal, which would be a very negative effect from the point of view of controlling carbon dioxide. Independent national legislation limiting emissions from coal (and natural gas) may well be a necessary complement.

Ideally most of us would prefer a genuine international agreement to limit fossil fuel throughput, rather than a monopoly-based restriction imposed as a discipline by a minority of countries only on petroleum. But the Western high consumers, especially the U.S. as resoundingly reconfirmed in its recent election, have conclusively demonstrated their inability to accept any restrictions that might reduce their GDP growth rates, even in the likely event that GDP growth has itself become uneconomic. The conceptual clarity and moral resources are simply lacking in the leadership of these countries. Perhaps the leadership reflects the citizenry. But perhaps not. The global corporate “growth forever” ideology is pushed by the corporate-owned media, and rehearsed by corporate-financed candidates in quadrennial television-dominated elections.

A lack of moral clarity and leadership in the mass-consumption societies does not necessarily imply the presence of these virtues in the OPEC countries. Do there exist sufficient clarity, morality, restraint, and leadership in the OPEC countries to undertake this fiduciary function of being an efficient collector and an ethical distributor of sink scarcity rents? As argued above, there is surely an element of self-interest for OPEC, but to gain general support OPEC would have to take on a fiduciary trusteeship role that would go far beyond its interests as a profit-maximizing cartel. But a strong moral position might be just what OPEC needs to gain the legitimacy necessary to increase and solidify its power as a cartel. Could such a plan, put forward by OPEC, provide a stronger power base for the goals that Kyoto tried and failed to institutionalize? Might the WTO and World Bank recognize that sustainable development is a more basic value than free trade, and lend their support? I do not know. Maybe the whole idea is just a utopian speculation. But given the post-Kyoto state of disarray and the paucity of policy suggestions, I do believe that it is worth initiating a discussion of this possibility.

If sustainability is to be more than an empty word we have to evolve mechanisms for constraining throughput flows within environmental source and sink capacities. Petroleum is the logical place to begin. And OPEC is the major institution in a position to influence the global throughput of petroleum.

* “Sustainable Development and OPEC,” Chapter 15 in Herman E. Daly, Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Edward Elgar Publishers, Cheltenham, UK, 2007.

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.

Why Bargains are Bad

by Marq de Villiers

Bargain-hunting has become a cultural obsession (my father in law, bless him, used to drive a good way across town so he could buy day-old bread that a flyer had promised was a nickel a loaf cheaper; my neighbor trolls the Internet for wine a dollar cheaper, or a lawnmower he can get for a hundreds buck off — whether or not he needs another lawnmower). Thrift hasn’t disappeared; it just mutated into the endless search for cheaper stuff.

This search has had many savagely negative effects: it has persuaded manufacturers to set price, rather than quality or service, as the single prime necessity. It no longer matters that something lasts, or does what it was supposed to for longer than it takes to unwrap it, as long as it was cheaper than the competition. This means that things can no longer be fixed, only thrown away, and the next cheap thing bought in its stead. It has driven down wages, and led to the globalized search for an ever cheaper work force. It has led to a world in which advertising tells greater and greater lies. It has led to a world in which predatory discounters routinely drive smaller businesses into bankruptcy, devastating small towns everywhere. It rewards scale. It led to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, and arch pusher of vast amounts of Adam Smith’s unnecessary things.

Much has been made recently of Wal-Mart’s plans to reduce its environmental impact, and to enforce environmental and social standards on the millions of suppliers that fill its stores. Wal-Mart has switched to environmentally benign light bulbs in its stores. Its trucks are no longer kept idling while their drivers take a lunch break. But meanwhile, Wal-Mart still keeps its prices as low as possible. It works this way: a factory in a small town, say Winchester, Virginia, makes, say, rubber goods. Call it, oh, Rubbermaid for short. It is a good-sized firm, and it has always operated in a socially responsibly way — it has a stable workforce, pays livable wages, makes products that endure, and sells a good many of them to Wal-Mart. By 1994, the company was doing so well that it was voted the most-admired American company by Fortune magazine.

But a few years later, as Joe Bageant put it in Deer Hunting with Jesus, “North America’s largest plastic products company was a foundering corporation, brought down by the boys from Benton, Arkansas… In 2001, Wal-Mart’s executive management team heavied up on Rubbermaid, demanding ridiculously low prices despite an 80 per cent increase in the cost of raw materials, and personal pleas from Rubbermaid CEO Joseph Galli. Galli begged. Wal-Mart stood firm. Later, when Rubbermaid refused to go along with Wal-Mart’s utterly unworkable price, Wal-Mart dropped the hammer. It pulled Rubbermaid products off the shelves, replacing them with knockoffs… After seeing its sales drop 30 per cent, Rubbermaid caved.” Rubbermaid shut down 69 of its 400 facilities, fired eleven thousand workers and planned to shift half its production to what it delicately called “low-cost countries.” Five years later, Rubbermaid’s profit was up — net income of $108 million. But the workers were still out of work, and the town devastated. “The fact that stock rises — and its owners along with it — in the wake of mass firings says more about what corporations consider an asset than a million mealy-mouthed Human Resources brochures and Wal-Mart smocks,” as Laura Penny so trenchantly put it.

What is gained? It is easier to see what is lost. Workmanship and product integrity are lost. Paying jobs are lost, and workers who feel good about themselves and where they work. A good corporate citizen is lost, and with it a tax base for another small town. In a larger sense, a culture that understood standards, workmanship, and the value of craft is degraded, along with the sturdy but apparently obsolete capitalist notion that competition leads to stronger, more highly evolved industries through the process of “creative destruction.” Instead, we get price wars and the relentless erosion of standards. We get big box stores with no roots and no conscience. We get the commodification of jobs that has ravaged the middle class.

So ask again, who benefits? Here’s the answer: when Caterpillar moved its operations to right-to-work (i.e. anti-union) states with low wages, its employees could no longer afford to buy houses or send their kids to college, but the company’s profit jumped, in 2006, by more than 70 per cent, and the CEO got more than $14 million in what is laughingly called “compensation.” You can call it compensation, if you like. I call it swindling.

So what happens when we stop shopping?

This is the great conundrum. The economy is built on consumption and the early obsolescence of things provide jobs, and keep the economy ticking over. How do you manage a transition, if people stop spending? Before, you could always rely on technological advance. People could stop buying buggies, and the buggy manufacturers went out of business, but people bought cars instead, and car makers prospered. But what happens if they stop buying something — and buy nothing to replace it? If men stopped shaving, thousands of workers would be laid off, because their jobs are to make razors and razor blades and batteries for shavers, and shaving cream and lotions, and devising marketing campaigns for shaving systems. This dilemma is replicated in every industry, in every town, in every region, in every country. Andrew Revkin, The New York Times’s wise ecology correspondent, pondered the question not long ago, though he put it this way: How do you grow an economy without the jobs and the taxes that these unnecessary things produce? And he added: “The market, unfortunately, does not differentiate between good and bad. If the people want junk, the market will provide. So we have to fall back on the conscience of our business leaders.” In which he was surely being sardonic.

But in Revkin’s question lie the seeds of an answer. He asked, how do you grow an economy without the taxes and jobs… ? The beginning of the answer surely is, don’t grow. As Tim Jackson puts it, “consuming less may be the single biggest thing you can do to save carbon emissions, and yet no one dares to mention it. Because if we did, it would threaten economic growth, the very thing that is causing the problem in the first place.”

Marq de Villiers is an award-winning writer of books and articles on exploration, history, politics, and travel. He is also a graduate of the London School of Economics, and his latest book puts his training in economics to good use. Our Way Out: Principles for a Post-Apocalyptic World offers a refreshing menu of economic options for an overly consumptive population living on an environmentally stressed planet.

Economics Unmasked

by Herman Daly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homo Economicus Versus Person-in-Community

by Herman Daly

The problem with Homo economicus (the abstract picture of a human being on which economic theory is based) is that she is an atomistic individual connected to other people and things only by external relations. John Cobb and I (For the Common Good) proposed instead the concept of “person-in-community” whose very identity is constituted by internal relations to others in the community. I can only define myself by reference to these relations in community. Who am I? I am son of…, husband of…, father of…, friend of…, citizen of…, member of…, etc. Shorn of all these relations there is not much left of “me”. I am defined by these relations, and therefore they are internal to my identity as a self-conscious, willing being, not just external connections between some abstract, atomistic, independent “me” and other people, places, or things. Similarly, my relation to the environment is not just external, the economist’s term “externalities” notwithstanding. I am literally constituted by what I take in from the environment. My connection to air is not just external, it is an internal relation manifested in my lungs — I am an air-breather, just as I am the brother of…. This is an ontological statement about how the world is, how people are, not a wish about how they should be. The customary vision of Homo economicus is a wish about how people would have to be for neoclassical economics to work! Homo economicus is a misleading picture of people, consequently neoclassical economics is a misleading theory, and policy based on it has been badly misled.

The person-in-community understanding of who we are means that my welfare depends much more on the quality of all the relationships that define me than on my external relations to the commodities I buy or consume. And if advertisers convince me that my relation to certain commodities really is internal to and constitutive of my identity — I am a Marlboro man or a Lexus owner — then so much the worse for me. The idea that the welfare of a community or commonwealth can even be approximated by summing up the annual consumption-based marginal utilities of atomistic individuals related only externally through an exchange nexus is quite absurd.

Community is far more than an aggregation of individuals. Communities have boundaries that are both inclusive and exclusive. The relationships by which we are defined as persons-in-community are those with people and places we know, with whom we share some common history, language, and laws. They do not include all possible relations with all people all over the globe, except in a very abstract and tenuous way. World community should be viewed as a federation of national communities, a community of communities, not as an immediate community in which persons have direct membership. It sounds good to say that “I am a citizen of the globe”, but it is meaningless unless I am first defined by my more local relations in community. Global community must be built up from below as the federated community of interdependent local and national communities. It cannot be some single, integrated, top-down, a-historical, abstract global club. Free trade, free capital mobility, and free migration do not create a global community. Globalization is just neoclassical atomistic individualism writ large. Such globalization destroys the local historical relations in community by which persons produce for and take care of each other, and from which we might step-by-step federate into a global community of communities following the principle of “subsidiarity”. This is a rule that says problems should be dealt with at the most local community level capable of solving them. Climate change is irreducibly global, so let our fledgling institutions of world federation focus on that instead of trying to take over local markets for food, clothing, finance, etc. by globalization, resulting in unnecessary dependence on transnational corporations and loss of local autonomy. Even if loosening global integration results in fewer commodities, which is questionable, it will increase welfare by allowing us to improve the quality of relationships in community that constitute our very identity.