Posts

Negative Externalities Are the Norm

by Rob Dietz

Here’s a crazy but true fact: negative externalities are the norm — not the exception — in our current economic setup. Failure to recognize this fact has created a wild divergence between theory and practice when it comes to managing harm caused by economic activity.

The Backstory

When I was a kid, my family took a one-week vacation each summer. In the middle of August, we always went to the same place — the beach at Nags Head, North Carolina. The trip was a yearly highlight, and I could always tell it was approaching by the heap of towels, beach toys, and fishing gear that would accumulate by the door that led to the garage. On the day of departure, my dad would come home early from work, and my sister and I would wedge ourselves into the backseat of the car, which was already close to full capacity on account of the cooler hogging half of the seat space and the bags of food and sundries on the floor.

I had to steel myself for the ten- to twelve-hour drive from Atlanta to Nags Head. Although fighting for real estate with my sister in the cramped backseat was bad, the boredom of highway travel was worse. But worst of all, both of my parents smoked — Marlboro Lights for mom and Dutchmaster cigars for dad. When one of them would light up, I’d let out an overly dramatic sigh and ask them to open the window. They’d comply by cracking the window ever so slightly, trying to maintain the air conditioner’s advantage in its battle against the late-summer heat of the South. The haze that hung inside the car made it seem like one of those “designated smoking areas” in an airport.

It was a rough journey, but it was well worth it. The Outer Banks of North Carolina held a mystical quality in my childhood mind. It was the land of endless waves, the Wright Brothers, towering dunes, and pirate stories, all steeped in the smells of salt air and sunscreen. When I was eleven years old, something happened to sweeten the deal. My father invited me to attend the early morning fishing expeditions with the men. That was hallowed ground. Prior to the invitation, I had been relegated to the inspection crew. I’d wait for the crusty fishermen to return at mid-morning from their trip to the secret fishing hole, and I’d rush to the car when they arrived to survey their catch, which often included speckled trout, croaker, flounder, red drum, bluefish, and spot.

That invitation was the start of improved relations between me and my dad. We developed a better understanding of one another through the easy conversations that fill the downtime during a slow morning of fishing. We also developed a shared attachment to place — a mostly unspoken appreciation for where we were and what we were able to do there. Like many other fathers and sons, I bonded with my dad during the simple act of throwing a line in the water and hoping to catch a fish.

The Negative Externality

Arrrrgggghhhh!!!!

I get visibly upset when I see a sign that warns about the dangers of eating a fish caught from a given body of water. A fish consumption advisory has an uncanny ability to launch me into a scathing diatribe. Really? Have we become so reckless and so complacent that we accept polluted waters and toxic fish — that our best course of action is to stick a warning sign in the ground?

These days I live near the banks of the Willamette River, which tumbles down from central Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and flows gently north to its confluence with the Columbia River in Portland. The Oregon Department of Human Services issues the following warnings about resident fish in the Willamette:

Children 6 years of age or younger should not eat more than one 4-ounce fish meal every 7 weeks.  Women of childbearing age, especially those who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, should not eat more than one 8-ounce fish meal per month.  Women past the age of childbearing, children older than 6 years and all other healthy adults may safely consume up to one 8-ounce fish meal per week.

The agency issues these warnings because the fish store dangerous levels of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, and chlorinated pesticide residues in their bodies. Given one word to summarize why these fish are contaminated, I’d say, “externalities.”

The Definition

N. Gregory Mankiw, a prominent professor of economics and textbook author, writes that an externality “arises when a person engages in an activity that influences the well-being of a bystander and yet neither pays nor receives any compensation for that effect” (Mankiw, Principles of Economics, Fourth Edition, p. 204). So a negative externality occurs when an economic activity produces harm, and the people suffering from that harm receive no compensation. A good synonym for “negative externality” is “side effect” — an unintended but unmitigated consequence.

Toxic fish in the Willamette River are the result of externalities from a host of economic activities, including mining, electricity production, farming, manufacturing, and urban development. These activities (at least the way we do them today) generate pollution, a cost that is externalized by the polluters, and that pollution finds its way into the river and into the bodies of the fish. As a result, I’m less inclined to fish in the Willamette, less inclined to take my daughter fishing there, and less likely to have the same bonding experience with her that I had with my dad.

The Theory for Managing Externalities

Economists tend to cast negative externalities as an unfortunate, but fixable, part of the market economy. The standard suggestion for fixing them is to impose taxes on externality-producing activities. For example, burning coal in a power plant causes mercury pollution. The cost of this mercury pollution is externalized by the power company and born by society (e.g., those of us who want to go fishing with our children). If the government places a tax on the amount of coal burned, the power company will burn less, and depending on the size of the tax, the government can force the power company to internalize the full costs associated with burning coal (assuming we can put a cost on the pollution, and that’s a BIG assumption).

Another possible fix is to arrange for the polluter to compensate those who bear the cost of the pollution. In the example of the power plant causing mercury pollution, the power company would pay compensation to my family (in theory, the compensation should be equal to the dollar amount at which my daughter and I value the experience of catching clean fish from a clean river). The compensation acts in the same way as the tax to internalize the costs for the polluter.  In an economics textbook, you’d see something like the following diagram, which shows how supply shifts in response to a tax.

MSB = marginal social benefit; MPC = marginal private cost; MSC = marginal social cost. A tax or compensation scheme moves supply from MPC to MSC, which increases price and lowers the quantity supplied.

Theory and Reality Diverge

The theory sounds good, but it rarely makes its way into reality. In the market, as firms work to maximize their profits, they strive to maximize revenues while minimizing costs. A sure-fire way to minimize costs is to externalize as many of them as possible. In practice, if a corporation wants to minimize the costs of environmental protection, it can move its operation to a nation with lax environmental laws. It can do the same or find various “innovative” ways to avoid paying other costs, while passing them on to the rest of society. In the context of today’s economic game, this is a sound strategy. If the objective of the game is profit maximization, then a winning player will externalize as many costs as possible.

As corporations have gotten better and better at this game, they have accrued higher and higher profits, and gained more and more influence. This influence often extends into the legislative bodies and regulatory agencies that could, in theory, prevent the inefficiency and injustice associated with negative externalities. It has become politically challenging, to say the least, for a government to place an externality-correcting tax on a corporate activity.

What about the other path proposed by economists — the path of compensation? This path falls apart for several reasons when trying to make the leap from the classroom to the real world. First and foremost, a profit-maximizing firm has a strong incentive to avoid paying such compensation. Even if a “good corporate citizen” wanted to pay compensation, it would be taking a risk — its competitors would be able to charge a lower price and potentially outcompete it in the quest for market share and profits.

Second, think about the complexity of tracing a negative externality back to its source. In the case of the river and fish, many economic entities have played a role in causing the pollution. Which ones should offer compensation? Which people should receive compensation?

Third, compensation may do very little to solve the problem. Even if the power company offered me monetary compensation, I’d still be upset that I can’t take my daughter fishing. I’m one of those people (the 99% in my estimation) who would rather have a modest income coupled with full opportunities for health and happiness, instead of a huge income coupled with degraded environmental and social conditions.

The Real Solution

In today’s cultural setting, my parents never would have smoked in the car on our trip to Nags Head. The external costs of their habit (i.e., increased odds of health problems for their children) have become much more present in the public consciousness. The dangers of secondhand smoke are now well known, and smoking, especially around children, has become frowned upon. Cultural change, therefore, can play a role in curbing negative externalities, but it is often slow to arrive and incomplete. For example, when society got fed up with the worst cases of water pollution (e.g., rivers catching on fire), the culture of environmentalism generated the political will to pass new water quality laws. Over the years, the cultural change and laws have prompted big improvements to water quality, but we still have plenty of waterways that are unsafe for swimming and fishing.

So the question is “What can we do besides wait for the culture to evolve?” For starters, let’s stop viewing externalization of costs as a small flaw that can be fixed with a few taxes or minor governmental interventions. It’s a huge flaw that’s built into the system. And that means we need to change the system.

In the boardroom, instead of working to minimize private costs, business leaders need to be working to minimize social costs. It doesn’t strengthen the economy or society when a company inflicts long-term environmental or social harm to maximize short-term profits. The game needs to be revised, therefore, to free businesses from this constraint of profit maximization. A vast accounting infrastructure exists to measure profits — there are rules, highly paid accountants, and entire corporate departments dedicated to counting up revenues and costs. But there is no such infrastructure for counting up a firm’s social and environmental impacts. We need to rethink the basic model of commerce to prevent and clean up the negative externalities that flow from today’s model.  This rethinking process is more important now than ever before — negative externalities are piling up and becoming increasingly threatening (e.g., global warming) as nations and corporations continue their pursuit of unending economic growth on our finite planet.

I hope we can speed up the cultural shift and change the economic framework. I really want to go fishing with my daughter.

President Obama’s (Hoped for) “Amaze Speech”

Speechwriter: Brian Czech

President Obama’s hoped-for speech first appeared in the Daly News on August 7. We reprint it this week in anticipation of the President’s September 8th speech.

Fellow Americans, this evening I have a special message for you. It’s an unprecedented and surprising message, but ultimately it will resonate with your common sense, good will, and patriotic spirit. It turns out that the recessionary cloud we’re under does have an extremely valuable silver lining. I know; it sounds like something only a politician would say, but wait. I think you’ll be surprised to hear my explanation.

Now before I elaborate on the silver lining, I want to make it clear that the cloud has some rain, too. As a nation, we are struggling with debt, credit ratings, and worst of all, the painful experience of unemployment. The last thing I want is to mislead you into thinking these are problems I take lightly, or problems that will be automatically solved by the markets or policy makers. These problems were many years in the making — decades in fact — and it’s going to take years of diligence and readjustment to solve them.

Yet none of these problems can deny us the silver lining, which is this: the economic turmoil we experience today will change the course of history in such a way as to secure the future for American posterity, starting with our children and grandchildren. Let me reiterate, our own kids and grandkids — the most precious American treasure — will have a secure future as a result of the problems we face today. Here’s why…

Far from the trading floors of Wall Street and the policy meetings of the Federal Reserve, crucial discoveries have been made by scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians, and others collaborating under a broad umbrella called “sustainability science.” No, they haven’t discovered an unlimited energy source, a pollution-free car, or a method to stabilize our climate at optimum conditions. They’ve discovered something far more important and exciting: the key to permanent economic security.

For the past few years, as time has allowed, I and my economic advisors, with the assistance of numerous scholars, have studied this key to economic security. The theory and evidence for it is absolutely irrefutable. The only reason this key to security hasn’t broken into public dialog is because it serves no short-term vested interests; no wealthy corporations, think tanks, or political parties that would stand to profit before the next shareholders meeting or election cycle. But that’s also the beauty of it: the key to security is a non-partisan, scientifically sound approach to the long-run interests of all, especially our kids and grandkids. Fortunately for us, it’s surprisingly simple as well.

What is this key to a secure future? We could coin a new phrase to get credit for the idea or to improve its political flavor, but I believe the clearest term is what the scientists already call it: the “steady state economy.” Political advisors think it’s a bit on the dry side, but after what we’ve been through – stock market crashes, insurance crises, banker bailouts, panic over the debt ceiling, having our credit downgraded — doesn’t a “steady state economy” sound like just what the doctor ordered?

In the coming weeks and months, I and my Cabinet will be helping to introduce fellow Americans to the basics of steady state economics, especially what it means for producers, consumers, and public policy. We’ll do this through a series of public announcements, publications, and townhall meetings. Meanwhile, this evening, I’ll provide a brief summary, first by noting what a steady state economy is not.

A steady state economy is not communism, Marxism, or anything at odds with the Constitution of the United States. A steady state economy is not a stagnant, flat-lined economy but is rather continuously dynamic and creative. A steady state economy is not established overnight with draconian policies; instead it evolves as a matter of consumer preference and prudent policy. Most importantly, a steady state economy is in no way opposed to jobs and full employment. To the contrary, a steady state economy is the only economy that can ensure full employment, for your kids and theirs.

The most fundamental feature of the steady state economy is stability. The idea is to stabilize good conditions; stable agriculture, stable manufacturing, stable services, stable production and consumption, stable currency, stable markets, stable international trade, stable impact on the environment, stable air and water, stable climate… You get the picture, and remember, all this stability is at a good level — a level that ensures life, liberty and happiness for us and future generations. At this point in history, the steady state economy is the right goal, and the first step in getting there is recognizing it.

Perhaps you find this amazing. I think you should be amazed. After all, I haven’t said a word about economic growth; in fact I’ve called growth into question. The closest thing to this in presidential history is when President Carter encouraged Americans to consume a little less after the OPEC oil embargo. But President Carter was before his time, and his speech was maligned as the “malaise speech.”

Well, at this point in history, we can no longer afford — literally or figuratively — to pull out all the stops for economic growth. Therefore, tonight you’re hearing the “amaze speech,” the speech that introduces our nation to steady state economics, the alternative to growth.

I understand the adjustment in thinking that this will entail. I’ve gone through it myself. With the exception of President Carter in 1979, my predecessors for over 50 years have prioritized economic growth in their speeches, campaigns, and policies. None even mentioned steady state economics in a speech. Yet with every new president, the pursuit of economic growth has become less realistic, less sustainable, and even less desirable.

Earlier I mentioned the profound developments in sustainability science. Among the sustainability scholars are behavioral scientists and psychologists who have found compelling evidence that economic growth stopped contributing to a happier United States somewhere from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. After that, our gross domestic product continued to rise, but our happiness did not. If you’re like me — meaning old enough to remember — this probably resonates with you. Somewhere along the line the brighter lights, bigger houses and fancier cars stopped making us better off. In fact, all the new “stuff” started working against us. Now we struggle to find enough oil, water, “green space,” solitude, free time, and the peace of mind that comes with a stable climate. It’s all the sign of an economy grown too big.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think we’ve all done some crazy things in life, but I don’t want to go down in history as the insane president who kept trying every trick in the book to “stimulate the economy,” when stimulating the economy was neither bound to work nor even desirable by that point in history. I don’t want to oversee more banker bailouts, more stimulus spending, more loosening of environmental protections in a vain attempt to increase GDP growth. That would be insane. Instead, I’m going to tell it like it is: the pursuit of economic growth has become a dangerous obsession that we must overcome. I say this with the backing of sound science, the lessons I’ve learned, and the concern I have for the future of America.

I’m going to test your common sense now. Do you think there is a limit to economic growth? Remember, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services. It means more and more people, more and more stuff. It takes more energy, water, space to operate in, and places to put out the trash.

Now as a politician, I can assure you that, in the coming days, well-paid pundits will conjure up magical concepts of perpetual growth based on “dematerializing” the economy. Well when they’re ready to dematerialize it, maybe they can beam us up. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the real economy know what perpetual GDP growth would take: evermore people, evermore stuff. And we know we’re running out of evermore room, resources, and patience for unreal notions of evermore growth.

I know that for some, and perhaps for many, this is hard to swallow. For decades we Americans have been encouraged to believe in the notion of continual economic growth. But look at it this way: to think there is no limit to economic growth on Earth is like thinking we could fit a stabilized economy into a perpetually shrinking area. For example, with computers, robots, nanotechnology and the like, we could squish the $70 trillion global economy into North America, then the United States, then Iowa, then into the foyer of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, leaving the rest of the world as a designated wilderness area! It’s a ludicrous notion, and it’s precisely as ludicrous as thinking there’s no limit to economic growth in Des Moines, the United States, or Earth.

Now, let’s consider some of the problems we will face if we continue pulling out all the stops for economic growth. The first is inflation. Typically we use monetary policy — such as increasing the money supply — to stimulate growth. But when the real economy isn’t meant to grow as easily as increasing the money supply, the result is inflation. Nothing could be more harmful to our economy at this point than inflation, which is like a devastating tax on the nation.

Another problem is debt. As you know, my Administration injected a major fiscal stimulus into the economy. It helped somewhat and spun off some jobs, but it did not produce the wave of jobs we’d get in an economy with plenty of room to grow. Meanwhile, it added to our deficit and ultimately our debt. Now our credit is coming into question, as with so many nations in a global economy bumping up against the limits to growth.

Of course, there is no shortage of special interests to pounce on the news of faltering fiscal policy. The answer, they say, is to turn over as much as possible to Wall Street. “Take care of national security,” they say, “and let the markets take care of the economy.” The problem with that approach is that national security is about more than having the biggest military. National security starts with a sustainable economy, which requires a stable environment to support the agricultural, fishing, logging, mining, and ranching activities that have always been and always will be the foundation of the American and global economy. Our manufacturing and service sectors — the best in the world — are the best because we have the biggest and best agricultural and extractive sectors. And we have those because we have protected the environment from overuse, pollution, and displacement.

Consider what will happen if we take an unbalanced approach and prioritize economic growth even more over environmental protection. Does anyone really question whether we will have more environmental problems, including devastating problems? More oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, more mountaintop mining in the Appalachians, more scraping for shale oil in the Rockies, more nuclear waste, more endangered species, more greenhouse gas emissions, and all the while less water, less fish and wildlife, less wilderness, less nature, less beauty. Does anyone question whether such trends diminish the quality of life for future generations? No, the problems caused by economic growth are unquestionable. It’s just that, for much of American history, the benefits of increasing GDP outweighed the costs. That’s no longer the case, and I’m confident that most of us can sense it.

In fact, the more I thought about this speech, the more amazed I became. Why did it take us so long, in America, to have an open discussion of limits to growth and alternatives to growth? The principles are irrefutable. Neither growth nor recession is sustainable in the long run; a steady state economy is the obvious policy for long-run security. Yet based on the politics of the past 50 years, you’d think economic growth had supplanted apple pie as the companion to motherhood.

Well, now we’re entering a new era of dealing squarely with sustainability. It turns out that economic growth was not a good companion to motherhood, not in the long run. We want apple pie back. We want loving homes for our children, quality time with family and friends, the occasional escape to the great outdoors, and peace. That’s the American dream in a nutshell, and it’s too valuable to sacrifice for economic growth.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and wash our hands of the dirty business of growth at all costs. We know what the right goal is, and malaise won’t get us there. We have work to do to stabilize the economy for our children and grandchildren. Our decisions — what we eat, what we drive, what we build, and frankly how many kids we have — all these will determine the quality of life for the kids that we do have. Meanwhile, those of us privileged to hold public office are responsible for developing the policies to help you thrive in a steady state economy, and for avoiding the policies that force us onto an unsustainable pathway of evermore growth. You could say we are tasked now with “steady statesmanship.”

To conclude, my fellow Americans, do stay tuned. In the coming days and weeks we’ll be discussing the details of transitioning from growth to a steady state. We’ll be talking with you about employment, population growth, stock markets, the banking system, and more. Don’t fear any shocks to the system; you’ve seen most of the shocks already as the policies of economic growth have failed. One by one, we’re going to turn these “failures” into steady state successes.

Meanwhile, good night, and God bless America.

President Obama’s (Hoped For) “Amaze Speech”

Head Speechwriter: Brian Czech

Fellow Americans, this evening I have a special message for you. It’s an unprecedented and surprising message, but ultimately it will resonate with your common sense, good will, and patriotic spirit. It turns out that the recessionary cloud we’re under does have an extremely valuable silver lining. I know; it sounds like something only a politician would say, but wait. I think you’ll be surprised to hear my explanation.

Now before I elaborate on the silver lining, I want to make it clear that the cloud has some rain, too. As a nation, we are struggling with debt, credit ratings, and worst of all, the painful experience of unemployment. The last thing I want is to mislead you into thinking these are problems I take lightly, or problems that will be automatically solved by the markets or policy makers. These problems were many years in the making — decades in fact — and it’s going to take years of diligence and readjustment to solve them.

Yet none of these problems can deny us the silver lining, which is this: the economic turmoil we experience today will change the course of history in such a way as to secure the future for American posterity, starting with our children and grandchildren. Let me reiterate, our own kids and grandkids — the most precious American treasure — will have a secure future as a result of the problems we face today. Here’s why…

Far from the trading floors of Wall Street and the policy meetings of the Federal Reserve, crucial discoveries have been made by scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians, and others collaborating under a broad umbrella called “sustainability science.” No, they haven’t discovered an unlimited energy source, a pollution-free car, or a method to stabilize our climate at optimum conditions. They’ve discovered something far more important and exciting: the key to permanent economic security.

For the past few years, as time has allowed, I and my economic advisors, with the assistance of numerous scholars, have studied this key to economic security. The theory and evidence for it is absolutely irrefutable. The only reason this key to security hasn’t broken into public dialog is because it serves no short-term vested interests; no wealthy corporations, think tanks, or political parties that would stand to profit before the next shareholders meeting or election cycle. But that’s also the beauty of it: the key to security is a non-partisan, scientifically sound approach to the long-run interests of all, especially our kids and grandkids. Fortunately for us, it’s surprisingly simple as well.

What is this key to a secure future? We could coin a new phrase to get credit for the idea or to improve its political flavor, but I believe the clearest term is what the scientists already call it: the “steady state economy.” Political advisors think it’s a bit on the dry side, but after what we’ve been through – stock market crashes, insurance crises, banker bailouts, panic over the debt ceiling, having our credit downgraded — doesn’t a “steady state economy” sound like just what the doctor ordered?

In the coming weeks and months, I and my Cabinet will be helping to introduce fellow Americans to the basics of steady state economics, especially what it means for producers, consumers, and public policy. We’ll do this through a series of public announcements, publications, and townhall meetings. Meanwhile, this evening, I’ll provide a brief summary, first by noting what a steady state economy is not.

A steady state economy is not communism, Marxism, or anything at odds with the Constitution of the United States. A steady state economy is not a stagnant, flat-lined economy but is rather continuously dynamic and creative. A steady state economy is not established overnight with draconian policies; instead it evolves as a matter of consumer preference and prudent policy. Most importantly, a steady state economy is in no way opposed to jobs and full employment. To the contrary, a steady state economy is the only economy that can ensure full employment, for your kids and theirs.

The most fundamental feature of the steady state economy is stability. The idea is to stabilize good conditions; stable agriculture, stable manufacturing, stable services, stable production and consumption, stable currency, stable markets, stable international trade, stable impact on the environment, stable air and water, stable climate… You get the picture, and remember, all this stability is at a good level — a level that ensures life, liberty and happiness for us and future generations. At this point in history, the steady state economy is the right goal, and the first step in getting there is recognizing it.

Perhaps you find this amazing. I think you should be amazed. After all, I haven’t said a word about economic growth; in fact I’ve called growth into question. The closest thing to this in presidential history is when President Carter encouraged Americans to consume a little less after the OPEC oil embargo. But President Carter was before his time, and his speech was maligned as the “malaise speech.”

Well, at this point in history, we can no longer afford — literally or figuratively — to pull out all the stops for economic growth. Therefore, tonight you’re hearing the “amaze speech,” the speech that introduces our nation to steady state economics, the alternative to growth.

I understand the adjustment in thinking that this will entail. I’ve gone through it myself. With the exception of President Carter in 1979, my predecessors for over 50 years have prioritized economic growth in their speeches, campaigns, and policies. None even mentioned steady state economics in a speech. Yet with every new president, the pursuit of economic growth has become less realistic, less sustainable, and even less desirable.

Earlier I mentioned the profound developments in sustainability science. Among the sustainability scholars are behavioral scientists and psychologists who have found compelling evidence that economic growth stopped contributing to a happier United States somewhere from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. After that, our gross domestic product continued to rise, but our happiness did not. If you’re like me — meaning old enough to remember — this probably resonates with you. Somewhere along the line the brighter lights, bigger houses and fancier cars stopped making us better off. In fact, all the new “stuff” started working against us. Now we struggle to find enough oil, water, “green space,” solitude, free time, and the peace of mind that comes with a stable climate. It’s all the sign of an economy grown too big.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I think we’ve all done some crazy things in life, but I don’t want to go down in history as the insane president who kept trying every trick in the book to “stimulate the economy,” when stimulating the economy was neither bound to work nor even desirable by that point in history. I don’t want to oversee more banker bailouts, more stimulus spending, more loosening of environmental protections in a vain attempt to increase GDP growth. That would be insane. Instead, I’m going to tell it like it is: the pursuit of economic growth has become a dangerous obsession that we must overcome. I say this with the backing of sound science, the lessons I’ve learned, and the concern I have for the future of America.

I’m going to test your common sense now. Do you think there is a limit to economic growth? Remember, economic growth is increasing production and consumption of goods and services. It means more and more people, more and more stuff. It takes more energy, water, space to operate in, and places to put out the trash.

Now as a politician, I can assure you that, in the coming days, well-paid pundits will conjure up magical concepts of perpetual growth based on “dematerializing” the economy. Well when they’re ready to dematerialize it, maybe they can beam us up. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the real economy know what perpetual GDP growth would take: evermore people, evermore stuff. And we know we’re running out of evermore room, resources, and patience for unreal notions of evermore growth.

I know that for some, and perhaps for many, this is hard to swallow. For decades we Americans have been encouraged to believe in the notion of continual economic growth. But look at it this way: to think there is no limit to economic growth on Earth is like thinking we could fit a stabilized economy into a perpetually shrinking area. For example, with computers, robots, nanotechnology and the like, we could squish the $70 trillion global economy into North America, then the United States, then Iowa, then into the foyer of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, leaving the rest of the world as a designated wilderness area! It’s a ludicrous notion, and it’s precisely as ludicrous as thinking there’s no limit to economic growth in Des Moines, the United States, or Earth.

Now, let’s consider some of the problems we will face if we continue pulling out all the stops for economic growth. The first is inflation. Typically we use monetary policy — such as increasing the money supply — to stimulate growth. But when the real economy isn’t meant to grow as easily as increasing the money supply, the result is inflation. Nothing could be more harmful to our economy at this point than inflation, which is like a devastating tax on the nation.

Another problem is debt. As you know, my Administration injected a major fiscal stimulus into the economy. It helped somewhat and spun off some jobs, but it did not produce the wave of jobs we’d get in an economy with plenty of room to grow. Meanwhile, it added to our deficit and ultimately our debt. Now our credit is coming into question, as with so many nations in a global economy bumping up against the limits to growth.

Of course, there is no shortage of special interests to pounce on the news of faltering fiscal policy. The answer, they say, is to turn over as much as possible to Wall Street. “Take care of national security,” they say, “and let the markets take care of the economy.” The problem with that approach is that national security is about more than having the biggest military. National security starts with a sustainable economy, which requires a stable environment to support the agricultural, fishing, logging, mining, and ranching activities that have always been and always will be the foundation of the American and global economy. Our manufacturing and service sectors — the best in the world — are the best because we have the biggest and best agricultural and extractive sectors. And we have those because we have protected the environment from overuse, pollution, and displacement.

Consider what will happen if we take an unbalanced approach and prioritize economic growth even more over environmental protection. Does anyone really question whether we will have more environmental problems, including devastating problems? More oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, more mountaintop mining in the Appalachians, more scraping for shale oil in the Rockies, more nuclear waste, more endangered species, more greenhouse gas emissions, and all the while less water, less fish and wildlife, less wilderness, less nature, less beauty. Does anyone question whether such trends diminish the quality of life for future generations? No, the problems caused by economic growth are unquestionable. It’s just that, for much of American history, the benefits of increasing GDP outweighed the costs. That’s no longer the case, and I’m confident that most of us can sense it.

In fact, the more I thought about this speech, the more amazed I became. Why did it take us so long, in America, to have an open discussion of limits to growth and alternatives to growth? The principles are irrefutable. Neither growth nor recession is sustainable in the long run; a steady state economy is the obvious policy for long-run security. Yet based on the politics of the past 50 years, you’d think economic growth had supplanted apple pie as the companion to motherhood.

Well, now we’re entering a new era of dealing squarely with sustainability. It turns out that economic growth was not a good companion to motherhood, not in the long run. We want apple pie back. We want loving homes for our children, quality time with family and friends, the occasional escape to the great outdoors, and peace. That’s the American dream in a nutshell, and it’s too valuable to sacrifice for economic growth.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and wash our hands of the dirty business of growth at all costs. We know what the right goal is, and malaise won’t get us there. We have work to do to stabilize the economy for our children and grandchildren. Our decisions — what we eat, what we drive, what we build, and frankly how many kids we have — all these will determine the quality of life for the kids that we do have. Meanwhile, those of us privileged to hold public office are responsible for developing the policies to help you thrive in a steady state economy, and for avoiding the policies that force us onto an unsustainable pathway of evermore growth. You could say we are tasked now with “steady statesmanship.”

To conclude, my fellow Americans, do stay tuned. In the coming days and weeks we’ll be discussing the details of transitioning from growth to a steady state. We’ll be talking with you about employment, population growth, stock markets, the banking system, and more. Don’t fear any shocks to the system; you’ve seen most of the shocks already as the policies of economic growth have failed. One by one, we’re going to turn these “failures” into steady state successes.

Meanwhile, good night, and God bless America.