Posts

The Guardian and Monbiot versus Forbes and Worstall

Dalyby Herman Daly

In his Guardian column, criticizing growth as “The Insatiable God,” George Monbiot writes:

Is it not also time for a government commission on post-growth economics? Drawing on the work of thinkers like Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, Peter Victor, Kate Raworth, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, it would investigate the possibility of moving towards a steady state economy: one that seeks distribution rather than blind expansion; that does not demand infinite growth on a finite planet…

It is no surprise that we at CASSE strongly agree with Monbiot. Nor does it come as a surprise that a columnist for Forbes, Tim Worstall, would disagree. What is surprising is that Worstall uses me in support of his position (with which I disagree) and against Monbiot (with whom I agree). How does he manage such a reversal? By conflating growth (quantitative physical increase) with development (qualitative improvement), and claiming that 80% of GDP increase is due to qualitative “growth” (total factor productivity), and is therefore independent of increase in physical resource use–when in reality the “total” factor productivity increase in question is mainly caused by an increase in physical resource throughput. This requires further explanation.

In a previous article, also criticizing Monbiot, Worstall states his position more completely, as quoted below, [my brackets inserted].

Value add [added] is economic growth, not more stuff. And we can take this insight to an extreme as well, that extreme being the steady state economy proposed by Herman Daly. In this world resources are only abstracted from the environment if this can be done sustainably. And we recycle everything of course [not energy or highly dispersed materials]. So, in such a world can we still have economic growth? We have no more access to more stuff to make stuff out of: so is growth still possible? Yes, of course it is. For we can still discover new methods of adding value to those resources that we do have available to us through our recycling. Daly calls this qualitative growth rather than the quantitative growth that we cannot have. [Actually I speak of “qualitative improvement” to emphasize that technology is not a cardinally measurable quantity that can properly be said to grow]. But there’s absolutely no difference at all between this and the more conventional economic descriptions of growth. Qualitative growth is akin to growth through an increase in total factor productivity as opposed to growth via the use of more inputs [only remember that “more inputs” should include natural resources, but does not]. And Bob Solow once pointed out that 80% of the growth in the market economies in the 20th century came from tfp (total factor productivity) growth, not the consumption of more resources. We’re just using different words to describe exactly the same thing here [not really].

Now if this were true we could keep resource throughput constant, avoiding most of the increasing environmental costs of growth, and still have 80% of historical GDP growth. Once matter-energy throughput is stabilized at an ecologically sustainable level we could presumably have significant GDP growth forever with minimal environmental costs, thanks to increasing total factor productivity. I would be happy if that were true, but I am pretty sure that it is not. Nevertheless, if Forbes believes it, maybe they would then endorse a policy of limiting resource throughput (cap-auction-trade or carbon tax), and be content with still significant GDP growth based only on total factor productivity increase? Don’t hold your breath. Worstall explicitly discounts any notion of resource scarcity, so why limit throughput? But, just for good measure, he argues here that even with resource scarcity, technology can, by itself, provide most of our accustomed growth, as it supposedly has in the past.

Worstall’s source for the 80% figure is the “Solow Residual,” which is commonly misinterpreted as a measure of total factor productivity. As calculated, it is a measure of “two-factor” productivity, the two factors being labor and capital. The Cobb-Douglas production function that underlies this calculation omits natural resources, the classical third factor. This means that it cannot possibly be an accurate analytical representation of production. It is like a recipe that includes the cook and the oven, but omits the list of ingredients.

Photo Credit: Claire.Ly

As natural resources becomes increasingly scarce, can we afford to ignore their contributions to increases in production? Photo Credit: Claire.Ly

Value added has to be added to something, namely natural resources, by something, namely labor and capital. The cook and the oven add value to the ingredients, but nothing happens without the ingredients. Our empty-world economic accounting attributes all value to labor and capital, and treats natural resources in situ as superabundant free gifts of nature. But in today’s full world, resources are not only scarce but have become the limiting factor. Leaving the limiting factor out of the analysis makes the Cobb-Douglas production function not only incomplete, but also actively misleading.

Nevertheless, Worstall’s 80% figure comes from respected economists who have used the Cobb-Douglas production function in a statistical correlation–an exercise to see how much of increased production can be statistically explained by increases in labor and capital. The residual, what is not explained by labor and capital increase, is attributable to all causes other than labor and capital, including, for example, technology improvement and increased material and energy throughput (natural resource use).

A large residual indicates weak explanatory power of the theory being tested–in this case the Cobb-Douglas theory that production increase is due only to capital and labor increase. But instead of being embarrassed by a large unexplained residual, some economists were eager to “explain” it as an indirect measure of technological progress, as a measure of improvement in total factor productivity. But is technology the only causative factor reflected in the residual? No, there are surely others, most especially the omitted yet rapidly increasing flow of natural resources, of energy and concentrated minerals. The contribution of energy and materials from nature to production is also part of the residual, likely dwarfing technological improvement. Yet the entire residual is attributed to technology, to total factor productivity, or more accurately “two-factor” productivity, in the absence of natural resources, the classical third factor.

As the natural resource flow greatly increases, and capital and labor transform that growing resource flow into more products, then of course the measured productivity of capital and labor increases. This increased “total” factor productivity, due mostly to increase in the ignored factor of natural resources, is then appealed to as evidence of the unimportance of natural resources, given the “empirical finding” that total factor productivity improvement (technology) “explains” so much of the observed increase in production. This reasoning is clearly specious. It is the increased resource use that explains the increase in total factor productivity (i.e. two-factor productivity), which cannot then be used as a reason to discount the importance of its own cause, namely an increased flow of natural resources. Indeed, the unimportance of natural resources could not possibly be an empirical finding of any statistical analysis based on the Cobb-Douglas production function, because that function assumes the unimportance of natural resources from the beginning by omitting them as a factor of production. This is a big confusion and Worstall is not the only one misled by it.

In conclusion, I think the Guardian and Monbiot’s position is not in the least weakened by the criticism from Forbes and Worstall, but that reliance on the Cobb-Douglas production function should certainly be weakened.

What Should We Tax?

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyFor some time a small group of ecological economists has been suggesting that we switch the tax base from income (value added to natural resources by labor and capital), and on to natural resources themselves. Value added to resources is something we want more of, so don’t tax it (either at each stage of production as in Europe, or at the final stage as income as in the U.S.). The resource throughput, beginning with depletion and ending with pollution (both real costs), is something we want less of in a full world economy, so let’s tax it. Even though resources in the ground and waste absorption services are free gifts of nature in the cost of production sense, they are nevertheless increasingly scarce in a full world. They need a price to be efficiently allocated and not overused. So let’s give them the needed price by taxing them, and use the revenue from the tax (or equivalent cap-auction-trade system) to substitute for the revenue lost from no longer taxing value added. The resource tax should be levied at the point of extraction (severance) so that the higher price will stimulate increased efficiency of use at all upstream stages of production, as well as in the final stages of consumption and recycling. Also depletion is spatially more concentrated than pollution, so in most cases a depletion tax is easier to monitor than a pollution tax.

In addition to this economic argument there is a political one. People do not like to see value that they added taxed away. They resent it, even while accepting it as necessary to fund public goods. But value that no one added, the original in situ value of natural resources and services, many people think should be common property, and most people think should at least be taxed for public purposes. If there is popular resentment it is against the resource owners who receive an unearned income (scarcity rent) over and above the value they truly add to the in situ resource by extraction and purification (echoes of Henry George). Of course oil and coal companies, and other extractive industries, will resist resource taxation (they currently enjoy government subsidies in addition to scarcity rents!), even though they would be expected to legitimately pass the tax on to consumers to the extent that markets allow. It is necessary that consumers, as well as producers, also get the higher price signal and become more efficient and frugal in consumption.

I have been told that we could not substitute resource taxes for value-added taxes because resource rents are a small portion of GDP while value added accounts for nearly all of GDP. You have to put the tax where the money is, I am told. But this is confusion between what is taxed and what the tax is paid with. All taxes are paid out of total income (money is fungible). But the question is, what is the tax proportional to — income or resource use? It makes much more sense for taxes to fall on resource use than on income. A resource tax falls on all citizens in proportion to their resource consumption, how much of a burden they impose on the biosphere, and not according to how much value they add to the resources necessarily extracted. Also, resource taxes are harder to evade than income taxes because, unlike resource depletion, income is not an easily measured physical quantity, but an abstract concept subject to manipulation by lawyers and accountants.

As to the reasonable objection that a resource tax is regressive with respect to income, that can easily be remedied by some combination of the following: (a) retaining an income tax on higher incomes, (b) spending the tax revenue progressively, including by abolishing existing regressive income taxes such as the payroll tax, (c) instituting a significant and progressive inheritance tax. Some object, less reasonably, that higher resource prices due to a resource tax will put us at a competitive disadvantage in international trade. But then so does an income tax, and it is not clear that there would be any net difference between the two in raising the same amount of revenue. In fact, any internalization of environmental and social costs would also raise prices and thereby create a trade disadvantage relative to countries that did not internalize those costs. However, the first rule of efficiency is to count all costs, not to run a trade surplus based on standards-lowering competition to externalize costs.

So why not shift the tax base from value added (earned income) and on to that to which value is added (natural resource throughput)? This would help us to count all costs and minimize depletion and pollution. It would stop penalizing the desired creation of value added by taxing it. It would reduce unemployment. It would use the revenue from natural resource taxes to substitute that from the eliminated value added taxes. The first value-added taxes to be eliminated would be the most regressive ones, thereby serving both efficiency and equity. This seems such an obvious improvement that one wonders why economists remain so in thrall to value-added taxation?