Posts

Presenting the Economic Policy of the Occupy Movement

by Brian Czech

If there is one thing the Occupy Wall Street movement has generated, it’s the opinion that there is no unifying agenda or policy being advanced by the Occupiers. Perhaps that explains why we (CASSE) have been asked repeatedly to contribute to that agenda and identify that policy. And perhaps the time has come to oblige.

No one can claim to represent the entire Occupy movement or all its concerns. The wide-ranging movement has taken on local, grassroots issues as much as national, systemic concerns. I got a taste of that recently during a visit to Bloomington, Indiana, where the local Occupiers were camped out on the perimeter of Indiana University. I was in Bloomington to give a talk about steady state economics at the university, and happened upon the Occupiers’ camp my first night in. They had little to say about Wall Street, GDP, or national unemployment. Maybe it was just my timing — which happened to correspond with Halloween– but the Bloomington Occupiers seemed pre-occupied with surviving the annual student “Zombies” march that apparently threatens the security of Indiana University every Halloween. The Occupiers were equally concerned with aggressive Zombies and the police assembled to confront said Zombies. (They feared the police would use the Zombies as an excuse to clean house all around the campus.)

It’s hard to blame the Occupiers for focusing on local issues and forces. Police suppression alone saps the energy from many movements, as I recall from the days of World Bank demonstrations. Yet despite the inevitable localization of Occupier concerns, the Occupy movement needs a national identity to survive, and it needs a macroeconomic policy goal to unite around. That policy goal should be a sustainable and fair steady state economy. Let’s see why.

The Occupy movement is, first and foremost, an objection to the rule of Big Money; big corporations, big banks, and big-time rip-offs of the taxpaying public. It’s all about economic justice. But at this point in history, economic justice is complicated by limits to economic growth. The old notion that a “rising tide lifts all boats” has become morally inadequate and physically irrelevant. In a world of over 7 billion people and an economy over $73 trillion in gross world product, the Wall Street Bull is tromping through an ecological china shop with increasingly endangered glassware. It’s not only that the Wall Street Bull is kicking Occupiers and the rest of the 99% out of the way; the Bull is destroying the planet. It spans the globe but the globe is full.

The Occupiers need to get this, discuss it, and emphasize it. Otherwise, they could be unfairly portrayed as just the latest brand of populists seeking to expropriate the expropriators. Wall Street could point out that everybody has always wanted “theirs,” including Nazis, Bolsheviks, and French revolutionaries known today as “The Terror.”

The Occupiers can do better. They are better.

The Occupy movement can do better especially by adopting the steady state economy as its macroeconomic policy goal. That means an economy with stabilized levels of production and consumption, which means stabilizing population and per-person consumption. It means an economy that fits on Earth without threatening present and future generations with its overbearing, bloating size. It means an economy of stable size that, when accepted by national governments and sought in international diplomacy, replaces war as a mode of getting “theirs.”

Only sound economic diplomacy — steady statesmanship — can ensure that everyone gets enough without killing thy neighbor. Wall Street doesn’t get that. To the corporations and banks, the world is a china shop to buck around in, and good luck to the kicked.

The ball is in the Occupiers court. They’ve got to concern themselves with more than the local food, zombies, and police. Occupiers must decide if they really want to distinguish themselves from the growth-at-all-costs corporations, banks, Democrats and Republicans that really and permanently occupy Wall Street. Can they distinguish themselves with steady statesmanship?

I think they can, and I’m one of them!

Ecosystem Services: The Traveling Salesman and the Trophic Conundrum

by Brian Czech

Some scholars make a living valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, with trips the world over pointing out the value of standing forests, free-flowing watersheds, coastal wetlands, and all those other “funds” of ecosystem services. Foreign governments, think tanks, and universities pay handsomely for such talks.  It’s a good gig for those who can settle for telling half a story.

Meanwhile the inconvenient truth languishes in obscurity. Our traveling scholars won’t be seen uttering the phrase “steady state economy,” at least not in public. They know it goes against the political tide, which is still coming in for economic growth. Grants go to those who don’t go against growth.

That’s why, after such scholars come through your town or country, you’re left to figure out the big picture on your own. By the time you realize that all the talk about ecosystem services and “green accounting” boils down to the need for a steady state economy, you’ll be left to do the heavy political lifting, too. The traveling scholar will be long gone; probably on another flight to a hefty honorarium.

Let’s get one thing straight: ecological microeconomics — deriving the value of ecosystem services — does have an important role to play in the quest for sustainability. But performed out of its macroeconomic context, all the talk of ecosystem service values is like the din of drums without the melody of a guitar. It’s hard to make sense of.

For the sake of all sustainable, I’d like to propose a new rule; namely, that no talks on valuing ecosystem services be given (especially for big bucks) without a healthy dose of ecological macroeconomics. Without explicitly pointing out the limits to economic growth and the need for a steady state economy, the speaker leaves the audience with a dangerous ambiguity. Suckers and scholars alike are led to believe they can save the world as long as they get the prices right for ecosystem services. Of course, some of the audience will “get it” — it being the need for a steady state economy — but too much ambiguity remains to turn the tide toward steady statesmanship.

This is no hypothetical matter. We see examples abounding. Take the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), which recently adopted a resolution calling for reforming GDP, which is the indicator of economic growth. NWF fully recognizes that GDP is a poor indicator of human wellbeing because it doesn’t account for many things — such as wildlife conservation — that are important to humans. They recognize that growing GDP has amounted to declining biodiversity, among other things. That’s why it is quite logical to surmise that NWF gets the need for a steady state economy.

But no, NWF clarified that they only call for reforming GDP and not for a steady state economy. Apparently they think that, by getting all the prices right for ecosystem services, GDP will be wildlife-friendly and we can have economic growth and wildlife conservation ever after. (Actually, at least one of the NWF delegates who advanced the NWF resolution was motivated by steady state economics.  We know that because he’s a CASSE chapter director! For NWF executive leadership, however, apparently it’s all drums and no guitar.)

NWF would do well to consider Herman Daly’s metaphor of the plimsoll line, the marking on a ship that tells captain and crew when to stop adding cargo. Loading beyond the plimsoll line is so dangerous that it was outlawed. To the NWFs of the world, ecological macroeconomics has a message: when you’re loaded to the plimsoll line, it doesn’t matter if you add a green puppy or a gray pig — you’re sunk!

Failure to see the forest for the trees would be greatly alleviated if only our traveling salesmen of natural capital accounting were to couple the incomplete truth (micro) with the inconvenient truth (macro). I’ll make it easy for them by offering up the “trophic conundrum” model from my upcoming book, Supply Shock. The model illuminates the inconvenient truth that all the valuation exercises in the world won’t save us from the tradeoff between economic growth and environmental protection.

We see from the model that as the natural capital supply curve shifts inward (from S1 to S2), the price of natural capital and ecosystem services increases (from P1 to P2). That’s basic economics. What is not basic (conventional, neoclassical) economics, but rather ecological macroeconomics, is the trophic theory of money, which tells us that the supply curve shifts inward as an inevitable function of economic growth.  That’s because economic growth entails the transformation of natural capital into more goods and services, plus manmade capital and waste.

We can do all the green accounting in the world, but the only way to stabilize prices of natural capital and ecosystem services — the only way to achieve sustainability — is to establish a steady state economy with stable population and per capita consumption. Meanwhile the only way to establish a steady state economy is with more, and clear, articulation of this inconvenient truth. Otherwise, with nothing but ecological microeconomics, we’re just pricing to peddle. We’re not conserving, sustaining, or telling the whole truth.

Opportunity Cost of Growth

by Herman Daly

Economics is about counting costs, and the cost to be counted is “opportunity cost,” arguably the most basic concept in economics. It is defined as the next best alternative to the one chosen, in other words, as the best of the sacrificed alternatives. You chose the best alternative, the opportunity cost is the second best, the alternative that you would choose if the best were unavailable. If there were no scarcity, choice would not be necessary, there would be no opportunity cost, and economics would not exist. More of everything means opportunity cost is zero, and is essentially the denial of economics. Yet “more of everything” is the goal of so-called “growth economics.” When the whole economy grows, the growth economists say that we get more of everything. Is there an opportunity cost to the growth of the whole macroeconomy? Not in the view of mainstream macroeconomists. In their view the economy is the Whole and nature (mines wells, grasslands, fisheries, forests…) are Parts of the economy. Used up parts can be substituted by new parts; natural parts can be substituted by manmade parts; natural resources can be substituted by capital. The whole macroeconomy is not itself seen as a subsystem or part of a larger but finite ecosystem, into which the macroeconomy grows and encroaches. These economists imagine that the macroeconomy grows into the void, not into the constraining biophysical envelope of the ecosystem. Since macroeconomic growth is held to incur no opportunity cost (the displaced void is worthless!), one must conclude that “growth economics” is really not economics – it is almost the negation of economics!

Almost – there is one remaining bit of scarcity. Growth economists recognize that we can’t have more of everything instantaneously. To get more of everything we must invest and wait. The opportunity cost of investment is forgone present consumption. But it is a temporary cost. Later we will have more of everything, and after that still more of everything, etc. Is there no end to this? Not for the standard macroeconomists. In their view it might be possible to grow too fast, but never to get too big. That is, the opportunity cost of investment needed for rapid growth might be too high in terms of forgone present consumption. But that misallocation is temporary and will soon be washed away by growth itself that will give us more of everything in the future – more consumption and more investment. That is the growth economist’s theory.

However, increasing takeover of the ecosystem is the necessary consequence of the physical growth of the macroeconomy. This displacement is really a transformation of ecosystem into economy in physical terms. Trees are physically transformed into tables and chairs; soil, rain, and sunlight are physically transformed into crops and food and then into people; petroleum is physically transformed into motive force, plastics, and carbon dioxide. Thanks to the law of conservation of matter-energy, the more matter-energy appropriated by the economy, the less remains to build the structures and power the services of the ecosystem that sustains the economy. Thanks to the entropy law, the more dissipative structures (human bodies and artifacts) in the economy, the greater the rates of depletion and pollution of the remaining ecosystem required to maintain the growing populations of these structures against the eroding force of entropy. These are basic facts about how the world works. They could plausibly be ignored by economists only as long as the macroeconomy was tiny relative to the ecosystem, and the encroachment of the former into the latter did not constitute a noticeable opportunity cost. But now we live in a full world, no longer in an empty world – that is, in a finite ecosystem filled up largely by the economy. Remaining ecosystem services and natural capital are now scarce and their further reduction constitutes a significant opportunity cost of growth.

The new economic question is: Are the extra benefits of physically transforming more of the ecosystem into the economy worth the extra opportunity cost of the ecosystem services lost in the transformation? Has the macroeconomy reached, or surpassed, its optimal physical scale relative to its containing and sustaining ecosystem? Is the economy now too big for the ecosystem from the point of view of maximum human welfare? Or from the point of view of all living species and the functioning of the biosphere as we know it? If these questions about the opportunity costs of growth sound too abstract, think of the following concrete examples: wholesale extinction of species, climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, topsoil loss, deforestation, risks from more powerful technologies, a huge military to maintain access to world resources, and an increase in the risk of wars over resources, etc.

As the marginal costs of growth have increased, what has happened to the marginal benefits? Studies in the U.S. and other countries show that, beyond a threshold of sufficiency, growth in real GDP does not increase happiness. In sum, growth has become uneconomic at the margin, making us poorer, not richer. Uneconomic growth leads to less available wealth to share with the poor, not more. And such growth in the U.S. in recent years has been accompanied by increasing inequality in the distribution of income and wealth – that is, the marginal benefits of growth have gone overwhelmingly to the rich (third cars and second homes) while the marginal costs (polluted neighborhoods, unemployment and foreclosures) have gone mainly to the poor.

Surely economists have thought about such simple and basic questions as, Can the economy be too big in its physical dimensions relative to the ecosystem? And, Are the marginal costs of growth now larger than the marginal benefits? Surely economists have good answers to these obvious questions! Well, dear reader, I invite you to ask these questions to your favorite economics professor or pundit. If you get reasonable answers, please share them with me. If you get a lot of obfuscation, consider telling the economist to go to hell. Be open to learn – but also be prepared to show some disrespect when it is deserved!