Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Who Needs Progress Anyway? Not the “Degrowth” Movement

 

Andy Kessler dislikes Bill Gates’s “robot tax” idea about as much as I do and explainS his reasons in the Wall Street Journal. Among them, Kessler doesn’t like how such ideas — particular Gates’s notion that we may want to slow progress so workers can better adjust — feeds into the “degrowth” movement. Yes, “degrowth” is kind of a thing. Kessler:

There is a murmuring movement out of Europe known as “degrowth.” If this sounds to you like a cabal of cave dwellers, you’re not that far off. Degrowth Week in Budapest last summer featured enchanting sessions like this one: “Popular competence building against the Technocracy.” Channeling Ludd, industrial insurgents and sustainability samurais want to keep things the way they are, like the eco-protesters at Standing Rock. The site degrowth.org is clear about the movement’s unproductive goals: Consume less and share more.

Well, advanced economies just ran a fascinating, real-world degrowth experiment. It was called the Global Financial Crisis. An economic shock followed a decade of sub-par economic growth. It wasn’t broadly popular. Really not all.

To be fair, I don’t know much about the degrowth movement. But here are some ideas that came from a 2010 conference in Barcelona (via Wikipedia):

  • Promotion of local currencies, elimination of fiat money and reforms of interest
  • Transition to non-profit and small scale companies
  • Increase of local commons and support of participative approaches in decision-making
  • Reducing working hours and facilitation of volunteer work
  • Reusing empty housing and co-housing
  • Introduction of the basic income guarantee and an income ceiling built on a maximum-minimum ratio
  • Limitation of the exploitation of natural resources and preservation of the biodiversity and culture by regulations, taxes and compensations
  • Minimize the waste production with education and legal instruments
  • Elimination of mega infrastructures, transition from a car-based system to a more local, biking, walking-based one
  • Suppression of advertising from the public space

This doesn’t exactly sound like a society ready to become, as Elon Musk wants, a “multiplanetary” civilization. Or one that’s ready to eliminate extreme global poverty (since the progress so far has depended on economic growth). Or one, frankly, that worries too much about freedom. Actually, it sounds super boring. Anyway, what I do know is this:

Economic growth — material abundance and the opportunity for human advancement it generates — is the beating, sustaining heart of modern civilization. Longer lives, more interesting lives, safer lives. Mass flourishing — with lots of cool stuff and more on the way. … So thank you, market capitalism. Or perhaps “innovation capitalism” is the better term. Economist Deirdre McCloskey offers several preferable options including “technological and institutional betterment at a frenetic pace, tested by unforced exchange among all the parties involved,” and “fantastically successful liberalism, in the old European sense, applied to trade and politics, as it was applied also to science and music and painting and literature.”

I wonder what sorts of opportunities and experiences will be available if technological progress and living standards are many multiples higher a century from now? Or put it this way: Who would rather trade their current living standards and lifestyle for that of their grandparents? Let me end with this from my recent The Week column:

Happiness economics is based on the idea that once you achieve a certain wealth level, more wealth makes you no better off. But economic growth isn’t just about more and better stuff. It’s also about how rising prosperity can create more opportunity to live a life of deeper human flourishing. High incomes “may not buy happiness with life in general, but it gives individuals the opportunity to be healthier, better educated, better clothed, and better fed, to live longer, and to live well,” write the researchers of Measuring Happiness. Just ask the two billion humans pulled out of extreme poverty in recent decades about the importance of economic growth.

But growth isn’t important just for developing economies. If the U.S. economy had grown as fast in recent decades as it did in the immediate postwar decades — even assuming rising inequality — the typical U.S. household would be $30,000 richer, according to a 2015 Obama White House report. So maybe a fancier car, but also more opportunity to move to a city with better job prospects, travel the globe, or educate ourselves. Economic growth may not be sufficient to creating a better world for more people, but it sure seems necessary.

There are 10 comments.

  1. The Reticulator Member

    James Pethokoukis: Suppression of advertising from the public space

    Before I’d take these guys seriously, I’d want to find out what they did to suppress the Obama administration’s advertising of programs such as ObamaCare.

    • #1
    • March 28, 2017, at 5:51 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  2. The Reticulator Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    James Pethokoukis: Suppression of advertising from the public space

    Before I’d take these guys seriously, I’d want to find out what they did to suppress the Obama administration’s advertising of programs such as ObamaCare.

    For that matter, I’d like to know what they’ve done to suppress public advertising of organizations such as degrowth.com.

    • #2
    • March 28, 2017, at 5:52 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. Penfold Member

    That Wikipedia list forgot to mention the little red book we must always carry with us.

    • #3
    • March 29, 2017, at 4:47 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  4. Old Bathos Member

    We in the developed world have known growth and change for centuries. We are not like tribal peoples in the most part of human experience who lived an expectation of sameness: sameness of seasonal patterns, of food-gathering technology, and of beliefs. The American persona is founded on the idea that there is more out there, more to come and that everyone has a right to help make and should participate in that change.

    In pre-history, the northern tribes of Australia once deployed the killer app of ancient times– farming. Brought by outsiders, farming was used for a few generations then abandoned in favor of the old ways. That is understandable because (a) the old life worked for them (b) it was integral to their spirituality and understanding of themselves as a people.

    Modern anti-growth hippies are not returning to an old way they once knew. They are like the rest of us–people of the culture of change. Their tastes, appetites, politics and ideology are shaped by the culture of progress. They seek to somehow freeze current conditions (or a very recent past) oblivious to the fact that those conditions were merely currents and moments in a steady flow of change and not an endpoint. The essence of 1976 is that people were thinking about and planning for what changes 1977 would bring. To try to recreate a static 1976 by amputating all thoughts and hopes of material progress is inherently silly if not monstrous.

    • #4
    • March 29, 2017, at 6:31 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  5. The Reticulator Member

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    In pre-history, the northern tribes of Australia once deployed the killer app of ancient times– farming. Brought by outsiders, farming was used for a few generations then abandoned in favor of the old ways. That is understandable because (a) the old life worked for them (b) it was integral to their spirituality and understanding of themselves as a people.

    I would like to learn more details about this. I’ve always wanted to learn more about this process worked with the indigenous people of Australia compared with those of North America. I’ve been able to pick up some comparative information about Siberia vs North America, but am relatively ignorant of how it worked and is working in Australia.

    • #5
    • March 29, 2017, at 6:54 AM PDT
    • Like
  6. Old Bathos Member

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Old Bathos (View Comment):
    In pre-history, the northern tribes of Australia once deployed the killer app of ancient times– farming. Brought by outsiders, farming was used for a few generations then abandoned in favor of the old ways. That is understandable because (a) the old life worked for them (b) it was integral to their spirituality and understanding of themselves as a people.

    I would like to learn more details about this. I’ve always wanted to learn more about this process worked with the indigenous people of Australia compared with those of North America. I’ve been able to pick up some comparative information about Siberia vs North America, but am relatively ignorant of how it worked and is working in Australia.

    That particular fact I picked up in a film documentary. The context was that aboriginal people had “the law” a unified body of lore, myth, oral history and knowledge which also included all practical methods needed to survive. Transmittal of “the law” is personal over a lifetime of campfire conversation. Rapid interjections of outside technology, ideology and method (science) are discordant to that integrated mental and spiritual state.

    In contrast, we are people of change. if we don’t get those novel, discordant interjections of material progress, we start to think something is wrong.

    • #6
    • March 29, 2017, at 11:10 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Duane Oyen Member

    Actually, the best approach to this is to levy a special 50% tax on all computer or software company revenues, and on every capital gain reported from those who grew wealthy via software or computer companies (no tax shelter- explicitly forbidden- for putting the cap gains into a foundation such as The Gates Foundation), and put all the money into an “adjustment fund” for those whose jobs are affected or eliminated by computer productivity.

    That way Bill can personally help those who have been hurt by his past actions.

    • #7
    • March 29, 2017, at 1:01 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. Old Bathos Member

    Duane Oyen (View Comment):
    Actually, the best approach to this is to levy a special 50% tax on all computer or software company revenues, and on every capital gain reported from those who grew wealthy via software or computer companies (no tax shelter- explicitly forbidden- for putting the cap gains into a foundation such as The Gates Foundation), and put all the money into an “adjustment fund” for those whose jobs are affected or eliminated by computer productivity.

    That way Bill can personally help those who have been hurt by his past actions.

    I propose a Joe The Plumber is Not Bill Gates Equity Act of 2017 whereby whenever a new tax or regulatory burden adversely affects any segment of the American economy comprised largely of small business, that there must be comparable losses and burdens imposed on all other US businesses. Because Fairness! The Department of Commerce shall determine the dollar value of the disproportionately borne additional tax/regulatory burden from which there there shall be a formula for determining a percentage penalty on gross revenues, which amounts shall not exceed 100% and shall be payable to the US Treasury during the following taxable year.

    • #8
    • March 30, 2017, at 8:28 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Duane Oyen Member

    Maybe we should build a few new dams and highways, using spoons instead of tractors or shovels, as Dr. Friedman is reputed to have suggested in Chile.

    Full employment for all!

    • #9
    • March 30, 2017, at 10:12 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  10. Steven Seward Member

    I think most of these “De-Growth” people would change their minds as soon as the smartphone is deemed too materially excessive.

    • #10
    • March 31, 2017, at 3:41 AM PDT
    • Like